ANTIGUA, Guatemala — Guatemalans have a saying for this picturesque colonial city: It’s beautiful, but it’s not Guatemala.
Physically isolated by three towering volcanoes, the city has long been a refuge in a country that emerged from a deadly civil war into a period of rampant murder and crime. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the city each year, to study at one of dozens of Spanish schools, to volunteer on various projects or to soak up Guatemalan culture.
One guidebook calls it a “fantasyland — what the country would look like if the Scandinavians came in and took over for a couple of years.”
But lately, a little of Guatemala has crept onto Antigua’s cobblestone streets.
The crime wave that has turned the country into one of Latin America’s most dangerous corners has not left Antigua untouched.
Lifelong resident Carmelina de Morales, 62, said the crime is the worst she can remember. Three months ago, a man was assaulted and robbed in front of her convenience store, in which steel bars separate customers from merchandise.
“We never had assaults. Even during the war, it wasn’t violent," she said, referring to the civil war that formally ended with the signing of peace accords in 1996. "Now, you see kids with guns and knives and it’s scary."
More than 5,000 crimes were committed against tourists last year, according to government statistics. Petty crimes are most common: Thieves cut through backpacks and purses with razors, stealing cash, credit cards and cameras. But in the past year, an American tourist was shot dead in Antigua’s streets, two others were raped and several were held up at gunpoint, according to the U.S. Embassy, which tracks crimes against Americans.
“There have been recent reports of violent assaults and rapes against couples frequenting after hours bars in Antigua,” a January communique from the embassy said. “Do not become complacent in Antigua; there is a high level of crime in this city.”
Crimes here are of particular concern to the government, which considers Antigua the jewel of a growing tourism industry.
Tourism to Guatemala has more than doubled this decade, to 1.7 million visitors last year from 826,240 in 2000, according to government statistics. The country is attracting visitors from around the globe, including a growing number of Europeans. Last year, tourists spent $1.3 billion in the country.
In a country that offers 23 volcanoes, Mayan ruins, scenic lakes and black sand beaches, Antigua is a must-see on any tourist route.
“It’s absolutely the center of our tourism industry,” said Evelyn Davidson, director of North American and European marketing for the federal Institute of Tourism. “A very small number of tourists are victims of crimes. But I understand the concern. If it happens to one person, it’s too many.”
It’s not just crimes against tourists that pose a risk, however. The country’s image is suffering, as reports of gang killings and drug trafficking have made headlines around the world. With an average of 17 murders a day, Guatemala ranks behind only El Salvador and Colombia for its murder rate.
The country’s instability led Studiosus, a major tour operator in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, to suspend all trips to Guatemala in 2009 and 2010. It cited a March warning from the German government about a rash of killings of bus drivers. Since January 2008, gang members who extort bus companies have killed roughly 180 drivers of routes that refuse to pay up.
Hotel owners and tour operators say crime is the biggest concern for tourists. “Hardly anyone comes without asking about it,” said Alejandro Garcia, who works at the cozy Black Cat Inn in Antigua. “They all have stories that they’ve heard, or had seen something in the news about the country.”
Meredith Roach, a 38-year-old Colorado resident who recently spent a month volunteering in Guatemala, said visitors should be better informed of the dangers.
“I just don’t think it was explained well,” said Roach, who considers herself a seasoned Latin America traveler, and who has lived in Mexico. “The violence was the most disappointing part of my trip there.”
Roach’s purse was stolen in a busy store in the center of Antigua and she spent weeks living with a host family that had been paralyzed by violence. The mother of the family was afraid to go out after dark, Roach said.
“I had to figure it out for myself,” she said. “I would have expected more of a heads-up, like 'Don’t go out after dark, and be hyper-vigilant.'”
Watching their tourist jewel tarnish, residents, government officials and hotel and restaurant owners have started to fight back.
Amid the dozens of advertisements for language schools, hotels and bars, a new sign has been appearing around town: “No to the delinquency.” Under the program, residents sound screeching alarms and call police if there is even a hint of a potential crime.
“It does enough to scare them off,” said Morales, who had two alarms installed in her shop. “I guess it’s working because the last two months have been calmer.”
The U.S. government has also pitched in, contributing $3 million to a community policing initiative in four communities, including Antigua. The program teaches officers to share information and form relationships with residents.
“The best thing about it is that it’s the neighbors working with us, alongside us,” said Perez Navarro, an officer who patrols Antigua.
The programs paid dividends during the Holy Week celebrations in April. Elaborate religious processions provide the backdrop for the city’s biggest tourist event. Roughly 40,000 foreigners come to watch each year and petty crime is always a concern.
“These kids from neighboring towns come in and steal wallets and purses or hold people up with guns and knives,” Navarro said. Last year, Navarro’s unit responded to some 40 incidents. This year, the programs helped cut those crimes in half.
“We still have a low level of crime, compared to other parts of Guatemala,” he said. We want to keep it that way.”
Read more GlobalPost dispatches on Guatemala:
Guatemala: the next to fall?
A murder prompts demonstrations
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