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Growing Up Amid Violence in Guatemala City

A teenage MS-13 member stands watch at his night post, overlooking the sprawling Limones and Maya districts in Zone 18, North-East Guatemala City. Rolling slums here stretch over steep, lush hills, acting as the battleground between the notorious Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs. Both have established an organised international presence, supporting murder, rape, extortion, kidnapping, prostitution, and trafficking in drugs, humans, and arms. Such ‘red zones’ have developed throughout the city, known as dangerous, violence-ridden pockets where outsiders are unwelcome, police and journalists routinely targeted. In Zone 18 alone, 65 people have been reported killed since 2015. Members of these gangs are recruited from as young as 8 years old.

A school boy looks on at a crime scene, where an MS-13 gang member was dumped on the streets from a car in central Guatemala City. Exposure to violence and crime, from any age, is rife within the capital.

“In the northern zones of Guatemala City, every school kid will know someone who’s been killed in the past year or so in gang violence,” photojournalist Souvid Datta tells me, “Everyone will know a friend or relative who is involved in the rival MS-13 or Calle 18 gangs. Everyone will know someone who is now in prison for this involvement.”

Datta has never been into what he calls “ambulance chasing.” Last summer, he was embedded within Peshmerga forces in Iraq, and still he focussed his energies not on the carnage but on the rhythms of daily life that persist in the most violent of circumstances. His five-week stay in the Guatemala capital- a city with one of the top three highest homicide rates in the entire world- was no different.

The photojournalist spent nights at a hostel in Zone 2, but by day, he ventured into the Northern areas with high crime rates, known by many as the “red zones.” Things moved quickly when he received word of activity from his contacts within the police force, but in between those calls, he was able to take his time and get to know the communities.

“People have certainly covered the city’s violence more explicitly,” Datta writes, “But I was more interested in the psychological reality for people living there.”

One of his primary interests became the children of Guatemala City, who often faced the painful prospect of joining one of the gangs and entering into a life of human trafficking, drug trafficking, contract killing, and more. In impoverished communities, it can seem like children have little choice over their destines, but Datta met young people who were actively engaged in educating, empowering, and supporting others. Ordinary lives persisted in the background of every trauma, and here, ordinary seemed miraculous.

When asked if he took drew any sense of hope from the people of Guatemala City, Datta responds without hesitation: “Most certainly.” He came away with memories that defied the bloody stereotypes, many of which can be read in the detailed captions that accompany his images.

Still, the photojournalist came away with a real sense for the scars that stretch far across the landscape of the Northern parts of the city. Those he met along the way wanted to tell him about the atrocities they’d witnessed. They wanted to share them with the world. One widower confided in Datta about the assassination of his wife, a school headmistress who had devoted her life to educating children and was ultimately murdered by one of her students.

“I’ll never forget that conversation,” the photographer says.

In the end, the residents of Guatemala City have a long road ahead of them, but that’s not to say that road will never end. This city has a future.

“The structural improvement of education, public services, law enforcement and judiciary are needed before long-lasting change can take place,” Datta explains, “But even now, many children and many adults I met embody the very resilience, mutual respect, and self-awareness needed to break past social trappings and pursue their own dreams.”

A wall in a PENNAT school in La Terminal market depicting interpretations of violence, illustrated by local students as part of a peace-building arts and crafts workshop. La Terminal is known to be one of the biggest markets in the world, a business hub for the country, a self-made economic zone for the enterprising poor. It stretches over 60+ square blocks and is home to thousands of stalls and vendors. It serves as a wholesale stop for most small business owners across the wider city, operating in the early hours of the day and providing anything from fresh food to pharmaceuticals, arms to raw building materials. Where once the market was be notorious for crime, now local vendors have organised private security forces to guard stores and enforce local, informal law. Known as the Justice Angels, these guards have almost eradicated petty theft and crime. But, operating outside the law, they also serve as facilitators for the thriving illegal industries here.

Delmi (16), Pedro (14), and Alex (16) at the Atlantida JV school, Zone 14, Guatemala City.

Delmi: “The situation here has gotten worse recently. Many students skip classes to hang out on the streets or pick fights with the rival school. Last November, I was visiting my mother’s shop in Zone 8, and a gang woman followed me. She asked me if I was looking for work. She was trying to recruit me. It happens a lot. People think it’s a better option. They can buy the phone they want, the TV set they want. They think it gives them security. Women especially feel less exposed to danger with a gang behind them. It seems to be a pattern. You either live in fear or choose to wield fear for your own ends. The Save The Children program has helped me gain confidence and make new friends. I know I’m not alone in this anymore. That helps.”

Jessica, 16, outside her home in Las Canaos, Zone 25, Guatemala City. Jessica is a local youth leader conducting Save The Children-supervised, peace-building workshops in the nearby school in Las Conchas. Jessica was raised in a troubled family, facing gang threats, alcoholic guardians, poverty, and an inconsistent education from a young age. Having struggled for many years with anxiety attacks, she has now somewhat settled into her surroundings, cultivating several creative outlets and excelling at school.

Jessica: “I have been working with STC for almost 10 months now. The mentors have taught me so many useful skills- how to keep calm, how to motivate myself, how to think about others first. Without them, I think I wouldn’t have had the courage to get out of my own bubble and make new friends at school. I’m really grateful.”

Jessica, 16, shows her hand-made book of ‘Textures’ in her home in Las Canaos, Zone 25, Guatemala City: “Every item here has a story behind it. Whenever I’m upset or need to clear my mind, I come back to this book: I’m transported somewhere else.”

Student X, 9, looks at his sister chatting to neighbouring residents in their 6-member family’s one-room apartment in La Terminal market.

Student X, 9, and Elvis, 10, walk to their homes after school, through the alleys of La Terminal market, Guatemala city.

Students take part in an a Day Against Violence workshop, singing songs of peace and listening to talks on inclusion and respect at the Atlantida JV school, Zone 24, Guatemala City.

Guatemalan PNC members (Policia Nacional Civil) perform stop and searches on suspicious teenage bystanders during in a night raid patrol over the notoriously dangerous Barrio Limon, Zone 18, Guatemala City. 41% of the city’s booming 3.5 million population live within slums in these northern zones.

An 18 year-old female prisoner (name withheld), in the Prision de Mujeres Santa Teresa (St Teresa Women’s Prison), cuddles with her 6 month year-old baby. She is in prison for being an accessory to multiple homicides committed by her former boyfriend, an MS-13 gang member who has evaded the police ever since. They both lived in Barrio Limon, Zone 18, Guatemala City.

A typical night scene in the gang-run Barrio Limon, Zone 18, Guatemala City. Hanging shoes from electricity lines indicate a nearby drug-dealing hot-spot.

Students walk home through an alleyway leading to a gang-run neighbourhood, next to the Instituto Enrique Gomez Carrillo in Zone 6, Guatemala City. In December 2014, a local vendor was assassinated by gang members during an argument over unpaid extortion charges. The neighbourhood clique, part of Mara Salvatrucha, is notorious for its ruthless enforcement of gang law.

Manuel Alvarez is the husband of Celia Ballesteros, a community organiser and long-time principal of the Instituto Basico Cooperativo en Canalitos who was assassinated outside their home by a local gang member.

“I was sitting inside the house when I heard the gunshots. At first I thought it was just a car back-firing. But then the ‘pop’ came again, and again. Celia was lying on our door step; the dogs were barking, and a crowd from the bus station across the road was rushing over. It was the worst day of my life. Over 2000 people attended her funeral. The worst thing is that everyone knows who did it. It was caught on CCTV camera from the bus station. Two people were tracked down and briefly tried, but as minors, they could not be detained. No one will testify to anything because here, the gangs rule. And they never just threaten you or your shop; they threaten your family and everything you hold dear. If I had a message to the children here, it would be the same as what Celia fought for for so many years. Learn respect and discipline. Learn to value human life, and understand others before you judge them. Learn that there is always a choice, that you are always responsible for your actions.”

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