How a Riot in Our Town Made Us Feel Safer

Question...If someone recklessly drives a car into a crowd of people, what happens to the driver?

Guatemalan Answer...It depends on who catches the driver. 

We live in a town of about 20,000 people in the western highlands of Guatemala. The town is called Panajachel, or Pana for short. The next town over, actually up the mountain, is Solola.

A few months ago, on a Saturday afternoon, a pickup truck carrying several men was driving from Solola into Pana. Along the way they stopped, robbed a kid selling DVDs and sped off. The police were not far behind and chased after the truck. 

 

The above map shows the winding road between Solola and Pana.

The chase ended when the pickup drove into the middle of Pana and rammed into several innocent bystanders. The people in the truck fled on foot and were quickly caught by the police. It was later reported that none of the bystanders were critically injured. In the US the story would generally end here. Bad guys were caught. They will be tried and will face the consequences. In our town, the story was just beginning. 

While the chase had been going on, I was cluelessly walking around town running errands when all of a sudden an ambulance came screaming down the street. It caught my attention because it was trucking and normally they drive pretty conservatively in our heavily pedestrian populated town. 

About 15 minutes later I was in the local community center picking up Tag from a tumbling class. People started coming in off the streets talking about the pickup and what was going on a few blocks away near the market. Apparently, shortly after the police took the guys in the truck into custody, the local Mayans went to the police station and demanded the prisoners be released so that the community could administer "local justice". 

The police refused. The locals grew frustrated and began to riot. Word got out quickly that you should not go any further North of the Community Center unless you wanted to be in the middle of the riot. 

 The riots were taking place down this street. There was a clear understanding that it was not safe to go that direction.

The riots were taking place down this street. There was a clear understanding that it was not safe to go that direction.

 In fear of the riots businesses such as this restaurant and bank shut hours early and lowered their security shades.

In fear of the riots businesses such as this restaurant and bank shut hours early and lowered their security shades.

I left the community center with Tag and went home to warn Mick to avoid the Market.

Meanwhile, things were heating up in the center of town. Rioters began throwing rocks at police. The police were out numbered and called in backup to handle the crowd. Since the pickup was still where it had crashed, the crowd decided to light it on fire. When the fire brigade appeared, they were under strict orders from the crowd to let the truck burn. They were only allowed to spray down nearby businesses so that they would not catch fire. The truck continued to burn.

Hours after I got home Mick and her girlfriend decided to venture out and went back to the community center. Here's what they saw...

 Police backup arrived in riot gear and began sweeping the streets. When confronted with rioters they threw tear gas which seemed to calm the scene.

Police backup arrived in riot gear and began sweeping the streets. When confronted with rioters they threw tear gas which seemed to calm the scene.

 Small fires set by the rioters burned in the streets.

Small fires set by the rioters burned in the streets.

Strangely enough, while all of this was going on we never felt unsafe. Sure, we were cautious. We kept to the periphery, watched from safe locations and kept the kids confined to the house but we never felt like we were in danger. The rioters were not seeking to do harm to innocent bystanders. The police presence grew to be significant and they were dealing with the madness with a calm professional demeanor.

The next morning I needed to go to the market to get some groceries. Sunday morning is the big market day. After talking with several people who confirmed it was safe, I cautiously approached the market area. Police from different towns/districts were everywhere around the market...just in case. It was then I saw the infamous truck for the first time. It was no longer burning and was being hoisted up onto a tow truck.

 The truck was pretty well charred. It had no windows or tires remaining.

The truck was pretty well charred. It had no windows or tires remaining.

Coincidentally the truck was relocated to the outskirts of town where it was parked right in front of Mickelle's school. It stayed there for a few weeks before it was moved elsewhere.

 The scorched remains of the truck near the shores of the lake.

The scorched remains of the truck near the shores of the lake.

Mickelle and I do not condone the violent acts of the rioters in any way, and we would never support those that act in that manner. However, we recognize that their actions make a strong statement about the convictions of the community.

Additionally the actions of the police were impressive. They never released the prisoners which demonstrated their commitment to protect the rule of law. Even more impressive was their restraint and professionalism. The newspaper reported that several officers were injured during the riots but when the reinforcements arrived they demonstrated their restraint and brought order to the chaos without additional injury to bystanders.

Lastly, it's important to note that even when the police were outnumbered nothing was looted. The only property damaged was the truck. 

While things are somewhat a kin to the Wild West here, we feel quite safe because of the symbolic actions of both parties in the pursuit of justice on that day.