Esquire visits Guatemala City, one of the most dangerous places on earth

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They're doing nothing. But theirs is a tense nothing, a studied nothing, a nothing filled with something. Hands in pockets, leaning on a parked truck, eyes left and eyes right, nobody talking, just standing there, on a corner, three men, white vests, sinewy arms, little rat-tail haircuts.

Boys, really. Our car stops. Shadows from the crude barrio buildings fall across the rain-wet road, their edges softened in the damp.

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"Don't take their photograph," Rigo Garcia whispers. "Don't even look at them. They've killed people." He leans forward, whistles, then shouts, "Olé".

One of the boys looks in. He seems irritated, but nods us through. We park around the corner, quickly descend a short flight of stone steps, past three makeshift memorials, and we're in 29-year-old Garcia's small concrete house.

"Those boys out there," I ask. "Are they a gang?"

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"Not yet, not really," says Garcia.

We're sitting in a cramped and humid room. There are no windows: the only light comes from a translucent plastic square in the corrugated metal ceiling. On the wall, there's a picture of Moses commanding the Red Sea and incongruous paintings of colourful countryside lodges. A column of flies turns slowly in the air.

"They've been around for about four years," he says. "They don't have enough territory, yet, to be a proper gang. But they're unpredictable, so they're dangerous."

"You said they'd killed people?"

"They kill people for money. It costs between $70 and $80. You have to kill someone if you want to join them, as an initiation. You saw those memorials outside? It was those boys who killed them, outside the house. One of them was sitting on the steps and they shot him in the head. He was 16. The other two were a brother and a cousin, 13 and 17. It was to stop them taking revenge."

"If they had lived, would they have taken revenge?"

"Of course," Garcia nods.

"And what would those boys have done, if you hadn't been with me?"

"They would have killed you."

Garcia lives here with his mother and sister, in a barrio called Peronia, in the hills of Guatemala City. The metropolis is sectioned into zones, some of which are safe, many of which are anything but.

Peronia is a red zone: a concentration of maximum danger within a city of maximum danger that is the capital of an outstandingly violent nation.

The last 40 years of Guatemalan history is a snake trail of atrocity, corruption and disaster. It spans purges of left-wingers that resulted in 50,000 deaths; an earthquake that killed 27,000 and made a million homeless; government death squads; guerrillas; coups; territorial disputes; assassinated politicians and human rights campaigners; a civil war; an erupting volcano; tropical storms and an apology from the US for deliberately infecting hundreds of Guatemalans with gonorrhoea and syphilis during medical studies.

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Currently, according to the UN, an estimated 88 per cent of the cocaine that reaches the US is smuggled through Guatemala. It is the drug trade that is often accused of causing the nation's extraordinary volume of killings: 24,021 murders between 2008 and 2012, with 122 massacres in 2011 alone.

The media blames the infiltration of the ultra-violent foreign drug cartels, the Sinaloa and the Zetas. The murder rate here, though, is far higher than it is where those notorious organisations originate: 39 per 100,000 in Guatemala compared with 18 in Mexico.

A 2011 Human Rights Watch report concluded that "impunity is the norm" here, quoting official figures that suggest that 99.75 per cent of violent crime goes unpunished.

The narco-traffickers use savage means to maintain control of their areas. Sprawling youth gangs, such as Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13) and Mara 18, kill, torture and maim in theirs.

The police and vigilante groups, meanwhile, collude in extra-judicial "social cleansing" against individuals who they suspect of involvement in either of these factions.

In the middle of all of this restless mayhem, there are ordinary people growing up, going to school, falling in love. They can walk around any corner, at any time, and find death. The young have a name for this place: Mousetrap City.

I'm here to meet the residents of the Guatemalan barrios. I have come for their stories. I want to gather a sense of what life is like, when every day is spent in the shadow of the trap.

When he was 11, Garcia was the greatest kite flyer in Peronia. Nobody could afford toys, so he and his friends would make them, using plastic they found in the street and sticks from the ravine.

Garcia tried many designs. He started with the classic diamond and experimented with various hexagons. But the model that made him king of the barrio was a square with an opening in the middle and a tail of string he'd snatched from his father's tailoring workshop.

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"Everyone was jealous," he remembers. "They would try to break the tail by throwing yarn with a hook over it, so I saved up for some more durable string. That kite went as high as the mountain."

By the time he was 14, Garcia had left his kites behind and joined a local boxing club. It was fun, relaxed. Boys and girls would come and learn the sport, some in the morning and some in the afternoon.

A friendly rivalry developed between the two groups. Gradually, it became less friendly. Boasts became threats. People brought bats and machetes to class to defend themselves.

One day, the afternoon group stormed the morning group's lesson. The terrified teachers locked them inside. Some of the kids had built hechiza: homemade guns constructed from plumbing pipes or tubes from metal TV stands.

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The barrio had worked its delinquent alchemy on the children: the morning group and the afternoon group had become gangs.
Many of them are dead now.

"Practically all the boys I went to school with have been killed," says Garcia. "And the boys I played kites with. One had his head cut off."

The last time Garcia went into the ravines, where once he'd gathered sticks as a child, two men tried to kill him. "Life today is very spontaneous," he says. "You're always thinking about how you're going to survive."

The residents of Mousetrap City live a present tense existence. Garcia's sister Marta tells of being caught in one of the frequent hold-ups on public buses, by gang members with pump-action shotguns.

"I cannot explain what it is to experience a single moment that decides your whole life," she says. "They decide whether you live or die. You're so fragile, but this is life in Peronia. I was going into the house at 3pm, one day, when three people were shot in front of me. I only just managed to get in before I was killed in the crossfire. The neighbourhood is on a steep hill. Some of the streets are blocked off and that's where people are killed. They could be robberies or just because someone made a disrespectful gesture. Every three or four hours, someone's attacked."

I ask Garcia for a tour. He takes me up the stone steps, past the iron crosses and into the muddy street where our car is parked. Narrow passageways lead up and down the hill either side of us, each one lined with makeshift homes, boxes of breeze block and iron.

We pass a tortilla stand and a shop. The owner stares out of the gloom, behind a prison-like grille. There are tattered adverts for beer and gyms and Jesus, elderly males walking alone with their hands in their pockets, boys and girls accompanying their grocery-laden mothers. There are no young men.

"We can go as far as that grey van," says Garcia, motioning to a spot about 10 metres ahead.

"Is that all?" I say.

"It's not safe."

I point towards an empty alley. "Can we go down there?"

Garcia carefully examines the scene. "No," he says, suddenly anxious. "We have to go back now."

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I peer down the alleyway. I see nothing. There is only a sense of silent watchfulness and, in all the bolted doors and windows, the implication of some kind of presence.

Marco Juarez's father was proud to have sons. But he believed Juarez to be too sensitive. He would shout at him. "You are my eldest! Why must you — my firstborn! — read alone instead of playing football?"

When Juarez was seven, he was sitting in the playground when some senior boys jogged past, on their way to the sports field. They were wearing tight shorts. He knew it, then. He knew what it was that made his parents so disappointed.

Juarez went to the church and prayed. Throughout his teens, he begged God to stop him being gay. But when he was 18, he met a transsexual named Jenny who encouraged him to make peace with his identity, saying, "You are just the way you are. There's no error."

When he told his parents, they were furious. His mother said, "It's a sin!" His father grabbed him and shook him. Around his neighbourhood, he was called "maricon" [gay] and "hueco" [hole]. But he didn't do what so many of his friends did: join a gang for protection.

Zone Three, where Juarez grew up, is especially volatile. There are members of the street gangs, mareros, but also narcos, who run drugs through the critically important city centre area.

Children between the ages of 11 and 15 are paid to transport small packages between distribution points. The mareros and the narcos are enemies, and fighting them both are the police and the army, often in tandem with lawless vigilante groups.

As boys grow into young men, they become mortally vulnerable to all of these groups, who either want to recruit them or to make them vanish. The usual narrative of good and evil that is told of this place misses an essential truth: often, it's not greed or malice or an enthusiasm for violence that makes the gangster. It is fear.

"People join gangs because they're scared," says Juarez. "As a teenager, the idea of people watching your back is very attractive. Two of my friends joined and I watched their personalities change. As children, they were kind. It was difficult, seeing them rob and later kill people to defend a territory."

There are gay mareros, but they keep their sexuality hidden. "I knew of one who got drunk and came onto another gang member," says Juarez. "Everybody attacked him with baseball bats and whatever else they could find. He spent a month in hospital. When he got out, he had to move away."

"Where did he move to?" I ask.

"Canada."

Last year, Juarez's cousin got married. A Mayan tradition has it that female guests prepare hot chocolate and a brioche-like bread and bring it to the bride as part of the ritual. At the wedding, Juarez's eldest aunt asked him if he would like to take part.

"It was a subtle but big thing," he says. "It was my family accepting me. About 100 people saw this. I was so happy that I went to a place where I was alone and cried."

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Until a year ago, bags of cocaine were sold openly in the barrio of Juarez's birth, like sweets. The army and police conducted house-to-house raids, confiscating the narcotics.

The residents, my driver explains, "received them with guns". Today, most of the roads leading into Zone Three are blocked by yellow concrete barriers that the army has erected, apparently to stop drive-by shootings.

As it is difficult for vehicles to enter, a small industry of tuk-tuk cyclists has formed around its entrances.

We walk two blocks in. A brood of young men clusters on a corner. We turn back to see a line of teenagers walking towards us. Mareros. "Get back, get back," hisses the driver.

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We scramble to the car and leave at speed towards the city's central cemetery, where he has promised to show me a suitable view for a photograph. We clamber onto a burial vault roof and see Zone Seven, La Verbena, cradled in the opposite hill, a drool of refuse spilling down from its centre.

It is dusk. By our feet, there is a weather-stained line of grey stone crosses. On the valley floor, a rubbish tip burns. A single vulture, its wings folded neatly back, looks out over the barrio from the leafless branch of a tree.

The metamorphosis of Guatemala City into Mousetrap City began, suitably enough, with cheese. Before the smuggling trails of this region were used for the passage of narcotics, the gangs used them to foil US trade restrictions against dairy produce.

It was during the Seventies and Eighties that cocaine replaced it, and then, too, that the Central American corridor began to suffer the highest murder rates in the world.

But as convenient as it might be for Guatemala to blame foreign cartels for its failures, official figures suggest that fewer than half of all killings are drug-related.

The real problem, of course, is money: individuals choose the profitable trades of crime when there are few others; society desiccates when the cash runs shallow.

Guatemala has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth on the planet. It boasts the highest per capita use of private aircraft and helicopters in Central America. While more than 50 per cent of its residents live below the poverty line and half of all under fives are chronically malnourished.

The UN estimates that violence costs the nation 7.3 per cent of its GDP annually, a loss Guatemala can ill-afford as it struggles with a certain difficulty that exists the world over: tax, and the non-payment of it by big business.

Here, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP is among the lowest in the world.

The government is trying to push through major reforms at the moment — 11 proposed laws — but the opposition is resisting them.

"We need the money to prevent violence and malnutrition," vice minister of finance Maria Castro explains over lunch at the ministry. "We also need to pay the police, to prevent corruption. There are assassins in the police force, paid by the narcos. And there was recently a big round up of gang members and within them there were several officers. Police were rounding up police. This is a big problem."

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More troubling still, the narco traffickers are moving ever further into domestic society. "Once they were Mexican, now they're homegrown Guatemalans," Castro says. "This country used to be just a route. Now it's a base."

"Why has it changed?" I ask.

"Because Guatemala is a highly attractive country in which to launder money."

As more of the barrios fall under narco control, the criminals find cannier ways of securing loyalty. In these hostile zones, in which the poor build their own houses, few services are supplied by the state.

And so the traffickers provide security, and more. "In one barrio, a narco was jailed and the community rose up and protested in his favour," Castro says. "He'd built a hospital and provided medicine. The loyalty was with him rather than the state, because the state doesn't have any money."

I ask about narco infiltration of the political system. A Guatemalan journalist told me of local candidates mysteriously having campaign budgets of tens of millions of dollars.

"I'm sorry. I'm going to have to answer this like a politician," says Castro. She glances away. "It's difficult to respond. It's very delicate."

This morning's El Periódico newspaper reports that last night a bus driver was shot and killed along Bulevar Liberación. In the first three months of 2012, it notes, the city saw 1,345 murders.

There are an estimated 10,000 mareros who have 30,000 collaborators. I ask the driver if it's possible to leave one of these gangs. "If you go out, you are in danger," he explains.

"Ex-members are called muletas. It means 'crutches'."

We're driving to another red zone: the barrio known as Mezquital. There has been a storm (a tormenta) and the road is jammed: Chiquita banana lorries, beautiful Harley-Davidson buses that look like Fifties diners, and the different kinds of taxi: white, yellow and green.

The white ones are the most dangerous, I've been warned. They'll take you to the barrio to be robbed or kidnapped. We crawl over a bridge that spans a ravine. They call it "Incienso" ("Incense Bridge"), a popular place for suicides.

The road clears as it steepens. A motorcyclist passes us with an automatic weapon on his lap. On one wall, as we near the barrio, a sign tells drivers: "Keep your windows down". The local security committee want to see the faces of all who enter.

Mezquital has the same look as Peronia: the buildings have been made in a hurry from cheap materials, their amateur construction betrayed by their blockish simplicity, their varying states of un-readiness and the odd individual eccentricity: a balcony built from stair banisters, an outer wall of bathroom tiles. Breeze blocks are cemented unevenly; rusting steel rods jut into the air, metal roofing sheets bend up from their bases. Everything is, at once, too old and too new.

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The family of Sammy Ochoa moved to Mezquital in a period known as "the exodus". In 1976, there was an earthquake and the country was being fractured by civil war. People who had lost their homes came here, to a forest on the mountainside.

To help them, the government built around 1,000 two-roomed houses. When rumours of the construction spread, thousands more arrived. They made their own dwellings from scavenged wood and plastic and corrugated iron.

"I remember the football field and playing in the river with my friend Julio," says Ochoa. "My mother sold rice and beans and my father worked in a soap factory. My elder brother was in a gang called 'Cobra'."

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Gang-life was different in the mid-Eighties. "When I was in primary school, being in a gang was about belonging to the community. If there was a dispute, they'd have a boxing match, and whoever lost would shake hands and accept it. There was respect."

Some gang members moved to the US, where they learned a new culture. Many were deported. And when they arrived back in Guatemala City, they returned with different attitudes, different ambitions, different weapons.

Ochoa was 10 when he noticed that everything was changing.

"I was coming home from school and saw someone fighting. That was normal," he says. "But this time, I heard shooting. From that moment on, all the gangs started to get arms. They took on American names. People would get shot for being in the wrong gang. I lost six friends."

Today, along with all their other activities, the gangs, or maras, in Mezquital extort the locals. "It's about seven dollars per family, depending on your income," he says.

"If it's a good-looking house you pay more. They're well organised. On each block they have a spotter who sees who's coming in and out of each house. The spotters call the collectors who get payment. They're kids who do these jobs. The person who calls on my mother for money is 12."

Ochoa is one of the rare individuals who attempted peacefully  to resist the maras. With friends, he formed a renegade theatre group called Caja Lúdica who organise colourful parades in a defiant attempt to reclaim the streets for young people. Four of those friends are now dead.

One was a reformed marero who had complained that he was being shadowed by a car with tinted windows and no number plate. His body was found inside a plastic bag buried in the back of a truck full of soil.

Another was a 24-year-old stilt-walker, Victor "Mono" Leiva. He was leaving his mother's house one evening when a group of middle-aged men began shouting at him.

They made him remove his T-shirt. When they saw his tattoos they said, "You're a gang member. You will die." He explained he was an artist, and they were Mayan decorations. They let him go.

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But in February 2011, Mono was leaving the hall where he gave breakdancing lessons when a pick-up truck and a motorcycle pulled alongside him and his Scandinavian girlfriend. He was shot dead.

"They were killed by a security committee," says Ochoa. "They work with the co-operation of the police and have a policy of social cleansing, to eliminate gang members. But their attitude is that all young people are criminals."

By the time we're ready to leave, the rain has stopped. We use the opportunity to take a walk. The sky above the streets is knitted with electrical wires. Dogs peer over roofs that are strung about with drying washing.

The hands of women are glimpsed through dark hatches pounding at tortilla dough, puffs of white flour flung into the black from between their fingers. Old men lean vacantly on walls.

A child runs past a derelict bus, a bottle of Coca-Cola clutched to his chest as a preacher in the marketplace points and proclaims. Motes of spit dance and fall from his lips as he rails at all the heathens.

This is where Victor "Fender" Garrido grew up. Now 26, he tells me the story of the youngest marero: the gangster known as Little. "His real name was Byron. He was eight years old. He carried a .38 and a Bible everywhere he went."

"Why a Bible?"

"Because the paper's perfect for making spliffs."

Little's parents were in command of eight gangs. When they were imprisoned, around 15 years ago, they appointed their son to take charge. "There was nothing anybody could do," says Fender. "They had to take orders from him."

Garrido was 11 at the time, and hanging out with his brother in an alley near the ravines when four mareros approached. "One of them was Little," he says. "He always dressed like a Jehovah's Witness with formal trousers, a buttoned-up shirt and smart shoes. The others were in Dickies skatewear. My brother, who was in Mara 18, had a beef with one of these mareros, whose nickname was Pelon. Pelon had said to him, 'Give me your Walkman' and my brother had refused.

"So that day, Pelon said to Little, 'Hand me your gun so I can kill him.' Little told him to shut up. But Pelon kept asking. On the fourth time, Little took out his .38 and shot it, just missing Pelon's head. There's a rule in the Mara Salvatrucha. If you're told to shut up and you don't, you get beaten up for 13 seconds. The next time I saw Pelon, he was covered in bruises."

"And what happened to Little?" I ask.

"When he was 10, he was kidnapped, tortured and thrown off a bridge by hired killers. That's life. People go around killing people with machetes, knives and garden shears. One time, a gang used a rocket launcher against the police. It's tough. You could get killed at any moment. It's why they call it Mousetrap City."

The ghosts that linger in the nightmares of a community can tell their own tales. The spirits that haunt Mousetrap City are notable for their violence.

Some believe that they've seen an ancient Mayan spectre called El Sombrerón, a bogeyman, who rides a mule by night and takes away the beautiful women.

Others hear the clip-clopping high-heels of the deadly Taconuda, the ghost of a woman stood up at the altar and out for vengeance, or the engines of the chimerical bus that does the rounds of the barrios at 5am, collecting souls.

Back in Peronia, I was talking to Garcia when his 53-year-old mother, Dionisia, came in and listened, impassively, her face leaning on her fist. After we'd finished, she told us that, when she lies in bed at night, she often hears the distant moan of La Llorona ("The Weeping Woman"), coming from the ravines where her son once gathered sticks for kites.

"It's the souls of all the people who have been killed down there," she said. When I asked what it sounds like, she raised her eyes and let out a long, slow and heartbreaking wail.

Caja Lúdica are a partner organisation of Christian Aid