Although, I'm the biggest champion of the country where I was born and raised, it would be remiss of me to pretend that Guatemala's not without its problems. Growing up, wherever you went and whatever you did, there was always a prevailing sense of safety first.
The facts speak for themselves, Guatemala has one of the highest violent-crimes rates in Latin America, with an average of 91 murders per week. It’s ranked as one of the 13 most dangerous places to live in the world. The majority of problems and issues are consequences of drug and gang-related violence, which is still sadly a dominant issue in the country. As a result of this, kidnappings were a real and terrifying threat growing up.
The risk was always there, a white noise hum, that you could never shut off in the background, but learnt to live with.
Looking back, it was hardest for my parents, who always had to live with the possibility of the dreaded what if? I've vivid memories of when the threat become all too real after a classmate was kidnapped. Held captive for some time, he was eventually released after his family paid his ransom. While this might sound like something out of an action thriller, it was just a fact of life, the way things were.
This reality is something that we explore in this week's final episode. Through the eyes of Pepe we take a look at the prevalence of kidnappings and how they affect his followers. In a handful of cases a year, he's called upon by distraught clients and family member's of victims. Loved ones desperate for answers and hope in a country surrounded by political instability and violence, his presence a beacon of promise for his believers. Filming these scenes with Pepe, the gravity of the issue really hit home -- the loaded emotional challenges he has to face as well as the heartbreak of the families he tries to help. A terror I and many Guatemalans know all too well from first hand experience.
When it became an almost paralysing fear for my family in the mid 90’s, my parents took the decision that we should relocate for some time to Jordan. For an active kid like myself, the temporary move was a liberating experience. To be able to run around and bike through the streets of Amman, with my new friends was a privilege I'd never had before. In Guatemala, it would be rare, almost downright impossible for me to be able to walk on the streets unsupervised. With the majority of my experiences tied up in indoor activities and if I were ever outside, it be within the setting of a gated community park where security were on hand. The two places for a kid with a penchant for the outdoors were like night and day.
But as time has passed, while the intensity and frequency of kidnappings may have lessened the nature of the kidnappings have evolved. More recent times has seen the rise of Express Kidnapping. Often this entails being abducted, with immediate ransom demanded, the victim forced to withdraw money from his or her ATM account. Those feeling the brunt of this and most affected are tourists unfamiliar with the country. I always tell friends wanting to visit Guatemala to do their research, to read up. My mantra -- “Don't take your safety for your granted, don’t be complacent and do your homework”.
Because while challenging, Guatemala is country of beauty. Rich in diverse landscapes and experiences, for the informed traveller a country full of volcanoes, rainforests and ancient Mayan sites for those who are intrepid. And despite it problems, it’s a country well worth visiting, a country I’m proud to call my home.
Should you have missed our final episode ‘Extraordinary Cases’ from our DOCCO #3 ‘Guatemala’s Psychic, then be sure catch the doc here: