you hear about community justice, there are stories told on the backpacking circuit that always happened a few weeks before you arrived or in another village that dots the lake. the first story i heard has been confirmed though the timing of it is still in question. to help you understand what i mean by community/village justice i shall retell the story as i heard it...
there are bandits that exist in the country due to a combination of a lack of income opportunities and a mass of weapons left over from the civil war that ravaged the country. (of course there are more factors but this is a blog and not an essay so i am taking the liberty to simplify the situation). it is told that some paths around lake atitlan are unsafe due to 'bandits' and the like. however we are assured that is no longer the case due to a dose of village justice that has driven the bandits further into the forests.
one day a 'chicken bus' was traveling from village to village carrying locals and their wares (note: chicken buses are throwaway school busses from north america that have been repainted, named and detailed and are the main form of transport for locals, and adventuresome travelers, to go either from one end of a city to the other or plain across the country. the longer trips cost dollars and the shorter ones barely cost at all. i should also note that they never fully stop, it is a matter of throwing your bag onto the roof and jumping on while the bus is in motion...good times) around the lake village to village carrying locals. bandits displaying more greed than normal stood in the middle of the road holding machine guns. the bus driver, i can only assume was fed up with the general situation, sped up and tried to drive through. the bandits opened fire, killing the bus driver instantly, and the bus rolled to a stop in the ditch. knowing they crossed a line the bandits didn't stick around to rob rather they took to the hills. within days the police identified and apprehended said bandits. immediately the villages demanded the bandits be release to face village justice. the police ignored their pleas. the next day a government building was burned to the ground (with no injuries). the community continued with their demands and again the police ignored their cries. the next day the villagers kidnaped a police office, doused him in gasoline and once again their demands. this time, their wishes were granted and the bandits were traded for the shaken but unharmed police officer. in the manner that justice is dispensed in the villages the bandits were bound, doused and burned for their crimes.
that story might sound pretty harsh but it is also pretty easy to understand when federal justice is rarely felt in the smaller communities. their is a general mistrust of the system that seems to let more people go than punish, where money rules over law. a friend who i had coffee with that in one of the churches there is a poster that says "STOP BURNING PEOPLE, GOD DOES NOT APPROVE". can you even imagine a sign like that in canada or the states and in a church no less? all this brings me to last night...
out celebrating a friends birthday i went out to the blanco bars for the first time since arriving in san pedro. it was nothing special. we climbed up to the roof to chill and drink, nothing fancy but meeting an interesting cast of characters it was a fun time. at 11:00 pm the bartender came up and abruptly turned out the lights and told us, it was now closed and it was time to go. what? 11? why? when she said 'they came by and told us to that they wanted everyone to close at 11, i assumed she was referring to the police. i was wrong. as we left the bar to head back to our friend's posada we passed a group of men, about 8 of them, who were walking down the street abreast. not realizing what was up i shared the common evening greeting, buenos noche. not only was there no response but the air seemed to cool down and it was then that i realized two men were wearing bandanas to hid their face. i should point our that i didn't feel in danger, i didn't get the feeling i was going to be robbed nor the sense that a beating was about to occur, in fact i felt more invisible than anything for my presence was simply ignored. we arrived at our friend's without further incident. when it was time to leave me and a friend started out on our normal way home but stopped dead in our tracks after turning a corner. in the street was now maybe 20 men, some with bandanas, some with machetes, not the kind of crowd i wanted to be passing at 12:30 at night on an otherwise empty street. 180 degrees we turned and took to the back alleys to get home with the hope of avoiding any roaming group of men.
i should point out that they men in the streets were not bandits, they were simply townspeople who decided that they wanted the "gringo bars" to close at 11. they walked through the town and literally shut down every bar. they then appeared to 'stand watch' ensuring no bar reopened. the whole time i was out last night i didn't see 1 police officer. at coffee this morning with a swiss friend who as been here a month, has better spanish than me and a much wider network told me that it was the roaming group of towns people that shut the bars down and not the police. he didn't know as none of the townspeople he spoke to knew exactly why. he was told it had nothing to do with the fact that this is a very religious town. speculation is all we can do. our thoughts are that below the surface of this idilic place there are problems like anywhere else. one of the issues, we suspect, is the dislike that many of the business that the many backpackers frequent are foreign owned and as such an element not so much of envy or jealousness but rather a feeling of an unfair situation and last nights "closing time" was their way of righting the balance.
since starting to type this i have chatted with a few locals and i got the same answer from all them, "son los gentes loco" = "they are just some crazy guys". they all assure me that i was never in danger and that i shouldn't worry (so neither should you mom). so as it stands i do not know what it was all about but my suspicion stands, some men were simply trying to rebalance a very out of whack local economic situation. another suspicion though not one i subscribe to is that the men were a de-facto 'neighbourhood watch' ensuing that the town could sleep the night before church (my thinking, why do you need machetes to ensure bars close?) oh well. feel free to pontificate and share. hasta pronto.