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Society & Lifestyle
Here we present unique adventures from the modern society and lifestyle.

The Guns of Central America - Part 1 of 2!

2007-06-15
This bizarre trip, from Havana to San Salvador, took me through five levels of Central American gun culture.

Photo. A well armed security patroller in San Salvador. See there is one big shotgun and one bug hadgun in the picture. © Alex Welsh.

My journey started in Havana – probably the safest capital in Latin America. The Castro regime has put so many cops on the streets that I was instantly told from the very beginning that any assault on a traveller is unthinkable. Scams, theft, yes. But in terms of violence, it is pretty obvious on the streets of Havana who is the boss.

Then I flew in to Yucatan, Eastern Mexico. As I wait in the queue for passport control, a guy in front of me smacks another one in the face real hard, and they both get taken away. That’s still in the international airspace. It’s another country here, everybody get your passports ready.

In the evening I went to a bar. The waiter entertained American tourists by pulling out a deactivated revolver and aiming it at people while his colleague would throw a metal tray on the floor as hard as he could. It was all a good harmless laugh, but it was also the beginning of my journey through the real gun culture.

Both in Havana and Yucatan I only saw handguns on cops’ hips. In Chiapas, a little further south, I advanced to Level 2. The area had suffered some turbulence due to the Zapatista rebellions of the Maya population. In awe, I got my first sight of 3-4 men police squads armed with M4 carbines and M16 assault rifles. After watching a video about the rebellion, and finding myself in a Zapatista village by accident, I understood why they were there.

Still, that was just a very localized reaction to an extraordinary situation, not a status quo. Once I crossed to Guatemala, things really did change.

The border was not even a border - just a walk through. It resembled a refugee checkpoint. Could have easily not even shown the passport. A different feel straight away. Angry gangsta reggaeton blasting out, a wanted "armed and dangerous" poster on the wall, dirty cowboys selling USD, hordes of counterfeit sellers.

Level 3. Full Guatemala of guns. First, there were M16s carried by the police. An M16 was literally the first thing I saw in Guatemala after crossing the border. Four cops at the gas station were carrying them by the sight-handles, sipping coffee like a bunch of businessmen with briefcases.

But that’s kind of normal. There are plenty of countries even in the developed world where you can see guns, as anyone who has ever flown through Heathrow Airport in London will know.

But then there were the shotguns and they were a lot more confusing. They were everywhere – at museums, stations, pharmacies, even McDonalds. The confusing part wasn’t as much gun itself (although that too, but I will come to that later) as the people who carried them. Who were they? Collectively called “security” they included anyone from fifteen to sixty years old. Very loosely uniformed (a shirt and a baseball cap), I doubt they were well-trained or underwent extensive trigger happiness tests. I once asked a kid with a shotgun bigger than him if I could take a photo, while he was nervously guarding a truck. For a few seconds his face showed extreme confusion: to be friendly to a tourist or to shout “contact!!” down his (non-existent) radio? In the end he frowned and muttered an angry “no” through his clenched teeth.

This one time I trekked a volcano and the guide shop gave me a shotgun escort because the path wasn’t too safe. That kid was just as young, 16 at the most. As I braved the path I kept thinking, maybe I should just take the shotgun and let him tag along with my walkman? It was a ridiculous, and a bit unnerving, situation.

If you see that outside McDonalds, you can imagine what it is like inside a bank. They are literally fortresses. One bank I visited had a tower in the centre, with two guys with shotguns, another armed trooper at the door and a small window just under the ceiling with a freaking sniper in it! I am really not joking, he had his bolt-action ready, crouched behind the ledge and scouting the floor underneath him.

Read more in part 2: The Guns of Central America!

Alex Welsh, 7 June 2007

Additional information
Alex is the webmaster of Valencia Tourist Information - an independent resource on travelling in Valencia, Spain - www.valenciavalencia.com.

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