Arnoldo Gálvez Suárez examines the violence of urban Guatemala through the anecdotes of its taxi drivers, finding that where they've been is less telling than where they are no longer willing to go.
One asks the questions and the taxi driver responds. After many years of taking taxis, I know that although there are some more inclined to chatter than others, no taxi driver can resist talking about his job. And what does his job involve? Does it involve transporting human beings from one place to another in exchange for whatever sum the meter dictates? Absolutely. The taxi as a means of transportation is only the tip of the iceberg.
The whole world knows, yes, but there are truisms worth repeating: If you want to get to know a city, you need to talk with its taxistas. The taxi driver, as Shrader and Scorsese so expertly understood, is the worm that explores the dark tunnels of the rotten apple. He is the restless, harmless amoeba wandering through the guts of the city. He is the witness who lives to tell the tale. The taxi driver recounts the horror of which Kurtz often sang.
Taxi drivers are indiscreet types. There are those who are not only indiscreet, but extremely imaginative. What fascinates this last group is to talk of the dead. But not the dead splayed out along the side of the road—rather, they are fascinated by the well-dressed, and one assumes very pale, elegant dead who get in their vehicles toward midnight and whose faces can’t be seen in the rear-view mirror.
As I have no interest in the supernatural, these aren’t the type of conversations that I prefer. My interests lie elsewhere. For example: if the statistics are correct and in effect Guatemala City is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, how do these numbers look through the big, clear screen that is the windshield of a taxi? What happens when the predictable path of a taxi and the erratic trajectory of violence meet along the asphalt?
The taxis I take aren’t those one hails arbitrarily in the streets. I prefer those arranged for over the phone which later arrive at an agreed-upon address. They belong to a company that, in addition to a fleet of taxis, runs a call center. The reason? To reassure myself of that elusive, nebulous idea that in a country like this, there truly exists such a thing as that most prized of commodities: security. And this is precisely what such a company offers. It preaches of its most virtuous service: “a safe trip.” And we, the trembling and paranoid consumers of security, this century’s most coveted good, believe every word. Without a doubt, the more experienced taxi drivers are less convinced.
An article from Siglo 21, published in May of 2012 and titled “Seventh Taxi Driver Murdered in Eight Days,” mentions that two of the taxi drivers who were killed worked for the same company I call on. Further on in the article, we learn that, when asked about the incidents, a company spokesman denied the murders had anything to do with extortion. However, I’ve heard another version. Various taxi drivers have told it to me over the course of the last two years. The details of their accounts vary very little from one taxi driver to another: according to them, the company was in fact subject to extortion; the extortionists asked them for a sum of money right then and a monthly cut of each taxi’s revenue. The company refused and the first taxi driver was kidnapped in the outskirts of the city. His corpse showed up in a different periphery of the city. The next day they murdered the second driver but, by then, the company had already contracted the services of a foreign security company (Israeli security companies dominate the market in Guatemala) that “foiled” (in the words of a taxi driver who I spoke with a couple weeks ago) the group of extortionists and delivered them to the authorities.
Almost seven years ago I got the urge, for the first time, to write a novel. I knew what I wanted to say, I knew that I wanted to talk about the peripheries of the city, but I lacked a plot, the motive for my narrative. I started asking taxi drivers questions. After a while I had developed a basic questionnaire that, one novel and seven years later, I still use every time I get in a taxi.
“Hey, do you go everywhere in the city?”—Almost all of them think a moment here and ask if I am asking if they go to any site in the country and then respond yes, that they can take me anywhere between the borders.
“No, no,” I tell them, “I mean do you go to Limón, to
Búcaro . . .”
“If I’m dropping off a client, yes. But to pick up a client, never. If someone calls from one of these, let’s say, complicated places, the call center lets them know that the company doesn’t cover those areas.”
“And if a client calls, let’s say from a fancy place like Oakland Mall, and ask that you take them there?”
“If it’s one of those neighborhoods that are really fucked-up, we leave them at the entrance.”
The client grows angry, argues that the taxi driver is obliged to take them where they wish. What fault does a working man have if he lives in the middle of a place populated by criminals, or governed by hooded neighbors, armed with homemade rifles, who charge an entry fee—or if he lives in the middle of a gang battlefield?
“We know, of course, that it’s not the client’s fault, but I’m also not going to risk my life for a seven-buck trip. The plus is that the company lets us decide if we want to go to certain places or not. It’s up to us in the end. There are some drivers who go everywhere."
And so, the taxi drivers build themselves a security system that, effective or not, at least provides some peace of mind. It gives them the illusion that, if they follow certain rules, nothing will happen to them. For example, even before the military presence in the Limón neighborhood, taxi drivers only entered Limón through the main street; entering Gallito (famous in Guatemala for being controlled by drug gangs) you can always enter driving slow with the windows down; other places can only be entered during the day; and in others one can only go as far as the entrance. And so on.
“And are there other places that you definitely don’t go?”
“To Carranza. That place is no joke.”
The story involving Carranza happened some five years ago. At least that was when I first heard it. Let’s do some quick math: let’s assume that in five years of taking at least two taxis a month (this is a conservative guess), we get a total of a hundred and twenty taxis taken in five years. Maintaining a conservative estimate, let’s assume that only half of those taxi drivers told me the story of Carranza. The figure is alarming: I’ve probably heard the story of Carranza some sixty times.
And what happened in Carranza? Nothing extraordinary for a country that has a murder rate of 39.9 per 100,000 residents (per the 2013 Global Study on Homicide, from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime): a taxi driver arrived to drop off a client, it was nighttime, he traversed the terraced streets and when he went to leave, a group of armed, masked men, their faces covered with towels and scarfs, stopped him as they fired their guns into the air. Instead of stopping, the taxi driver accelerated. The bumper of the Nissan broke one of the assailant’s knees before his body smashed against the front windshield. And still the taxi driver kept going. The result? Some say the taxi was riddled with fifty—others says a hundred—bullets.
“It was a miracle they didn’t kill him,” one taxi driver told me. “We saw the car, there were holes in the back of the driver’s seat, in the dashboard, in the GPS. But no miracle happens twice. The next time the same thing happens to one of us, we won’t be so lucky.”
The taxi driver survived, his coworkers say. He developed diabetes and lost eighty pounds, but he survived. Meanwhile, Carranza maintains its status as the favorite type of the success stories told by the media.
A badly written page (with lots of grammar mistakes), on Wikipedia, lets us know, nevertheless, that the neighborhood of Carranza, in the town of San Juan Sacatepéquez (on the fringes of Guatemala City), was purchased from the Spanish crown by a group of Cakchiquel Mayans in the colonial era. The property title notes the year as 1752. Until 1955 a little over 300 people were living in the neighborhood. And until 1980 the population was majority indigenous. Nothing of this image survives. What came afterward was overpopulation caused by an internal refugee situation resulting from the civil war and the consequent exacerbation of the neighborhood’s poverty.
Perhaps if we were to ask the surviving taxi driver to imagine hell, he would mention something like Carranza. And who could blame him? But Carranza isn’t hell. Hell doesn’t exist. What exists is extreme poverty—illness, hunger. Overcrowding. The absolute lack of basic services, of opportunities and of hope. What exists is a neighborhood like that found there today, forgotten by the state, a part of the capital city of a country that boasts the largest number of private helicopters per capita in Latin America. What exists are the generous conditions for the incubation of violence.
“Carranza doesn’t scare me,” another taxi driver told me. “It makes me sad. And there is nothing in my life I hate more than to have to tell a client, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t take you to your home because we don’t go there.”
© Arnoldo Gálvez Suárez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Geoff Bendeck. All rights reserved.