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Violence plagues Antigua

Guatemalans are fighting back against violence in the jewel of country's tourism.

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.”