Something that immediately struck me as soon as I started travelling through Guatemala by chicken bus was the amount of military checkpoints along the side of the road.
I first drove into Guatemala from the city of San Cristobal de las Casas in the far south of Mexico in the state of Chiapas. After crossing the border I arrived in the town of Huehuetenango, a notorious drug trafficking hotspot due to its proximity with the Mexican border.
Along the road leading to the city there were military checkpoints and campsites dotted around, with a mixture of army and police personnel patrolling the side of the road with some serious weaponry. They don’t walk around with little handguns or truncheons. They prefer a heavy automatic rifle or two. If you’ve seen that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Commando, that’s what they look like.
This is something that eventually becomes normal. Guns are a way of life here. Security guards, police, army and anyone in between carry weapons. Seeing the army and police patrol the streets in their pickup trucks quickly becomes part of the background scenery.
The other day, however, I was walking through the central square of Guatemala City when I noticed a group of three soldiers patrolling. The maroon berets on their heads distinguished them from other soldiers I had previously seen. As I approached them and saw the word on their berets my original thoughts were confirmed.
They were the notorious Kaibiles, the Guatemalan Special Forces – each and every one of them like Rambo… but scarier.
I hovered around awkwardly for a while before mustering up some courage and approaching.
¿Puedo tomar una photo, por favor?
Can I take a photo please?
Their immediate reaction wasn’t to pistol whip me in my gringo face, so things were off to a good start. Unfortunately my request was categorically denied. Two of the group quickly turned their backs on me and carried on their patrol, whilst the remaining one, in his best English said ‘hello my friend.’
Before we go any further, a little explanation on the Kabiles. They are the special forces of the Guatemalan army. They are widely regarded as up there with the best special forces in the world, their training one of the most intense.
In England last summer three SAS candidates died whilst training in intense heat. There was a national outrage that such a thing could be allowed to happen. Kaibile candidates, on the other hand, are almost expected to die, and they do so with frightening regularity, as I would find out.
Their history is fraught with controversy. They are heavily implicated in the genocide of indigenous Mayan communities during the country’s 36-year civil war (5 former Kaibiles were recently sentenced to more than 6,060 years in prison each for war crimes). The current president of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina was a Kaibile commander and he himself is believed to have been involved in several war crimes. Presently they are deployed throughout Guatemala to keep security and fight the narcos. Rumours persist that the fearsome Mexican Zetas have been bribing the Kaibiles to join their heavily militarized cartel.
Perhaps what is most worrying about them, as an institution, is their complete lack of remorse for the crimes and atrocities they have committed. Unfortunately in a country suffering from a bad case of collective amnesia where many people under the age of 20 aren’t taught about their own history, they are sometimes revered and respected. For older people they are reviled and feared.
Anyway, back to the story. We started to talk. His name was Geronimo, and he graduated from the Kaibile academy, aptely named ‘el infierno’ (hell), in Poptún, northern Guatemala, in 2009. Of a group of 75 recruits, he was one of 25 that made the final cut after 45 days of intense training, on his first attempt. 5 minutes of sleep a day and starvation were all part of the process. Those who failed collapsed from exhaustion, fell ill or broke their limbs.
I asked him all sorts of questions about his work. He was currently stationed in Guatemala City ´keeping the peace´ and fighting the Mara Salvatrucha, a Central American street gang. As so many people had already done he warned me of Zona 18, una zona roja, one of the most dangerous parts of the city. I had been there once and fallen asleep in the bus, blissfully ignorant of the world around me.
He confirmed one rumour to me concerning the red inner city buses. I had seen many buses with smiley faces graffitied on the back windows. Now, these aren’t those famous happy yellow smiley’s you see on your geography homework when you get an A+ on your pretty drawing of a composite volcano. No, they’re sadistic horrible cackling evil smiley’s. Their very happiness comes from instilling misery and fear into anyone who sets eyes on them. Sort of like Guatemalan Dementors.
As I had originally been told, it is a gang mark to show that said bus has paid its extortion fee. So, as terrifying as it may look, if you get on a bus in Guatemala City with a big smiley spray-painted on the back, you can rest assured that… it’s less likely someone will try to blow you up.
I followed this up by stupidly asked him if he ever got scared whilst on the job. He looked at me with a puzzled look. I then rememebered their motto.
Si avanzo…sígueme, Si me detengo…Apremiame, Si retrocedo…mátame.
If I advance, follow me. If I stop, urge me on. If I retreat, kill me.
‘No’ was his answer.
The Kabilies are also currently part of the UN peacekeeping mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Remember Kony? No, not Vladimir Putin’s pet labrador. I’m talking about that guy the internet really didn’t like that one time. That nasty child-abducting warlord. Well, him and the Kaibiles dont get along so well either.
It turns out Geronimo was heading off to the Congo in January of 2014. He seemed very excited about it all. He said he was looking forward to learning a new culture, and being a blue, a UN soldier. He would be part of a group of 75 Kaibiles that would stay on tour for 9 months. He was currently training with the US Army Rangers in preparation.
One thing that fascinated me during the course of our conversation was the similarity between Geronimo, a highly trained killing machine, with almost everyone else I had spoken to during my time in Guatemala. His ultimate objective was to leave Guatemala and make it to the USA. This is something that I will write more about in the future – a national obsession with leaving the country and making it in ‘merica.
He told me that he works 6 days a week as a Kaibile, and on Sundays he goes to school. To learn English. I bet he doesn’t get bullied.
With his English he hopes to eventually get to the United States, but legally, he stressed.
As I started to run out of innocent questions and the conversation started to die down, I took the opportunity to ask something which I felt may be more controversial but which I really wanted to know the answer to.
There were lots of things I wanted to ask. For example, what did he think of the Kaibiles role during the civil war? Was there any truth to the rumours about defectors joining Mexican drug cartels? What did he think about protests against the government, like the one that was going on in the park as we spoke?
The thing is, one, I was scared to ask anything too controversial and, two, I liked Geronimo. He seemed friendly enough and like so many other people here, was motivated by a desire to get to the United States. It’s a shame that the institutions of this country are so messed up that seemingly similar people end up so opposed to each other.
Anyways I decided to settle a point of morbid curiosity. I took the opportunity to clear up some rumours I had been hearing concerning Kaibile training. I had heard that on the first day in ‘hell’ each recruit is given a puppy which they must name, love and keep as a pet for the duration of the training. Cute, right?
On the last day they supposedly cut off its head and eat it.
So I asked Geronimo, ‘…did you ever have a dog?’
He immediately replied without any prompting from me, smiling at the memory.
¡Estaba muy hambriento!
I was very hungry!
I didn’t think he would be so straightforward about it.
¿Te sentiste mal?
Did you feel bad?
¡No no! No había comido en tres días.
No no! I hadn’t eaten in three days.
Excellent! That’s exactly what the US needed to keep its Central American dictatorships propped up in the 70s and 80s – dehumanized super soldiers.
Although, if the training is as bad as Geronimo made it out to be then its no surprise he jumped at the chance to eat his pet pooch Pedro.
¿Cuál era su nombre?
What was his name?
No me recuerdo.
I can’t remember
He really didn’t give a shit about the dog.
I decided it was best not to ask whether or not it was true that they bit the heads off live chickens as well, but if Alice Cooper can do it live on stage (he didn’t really), these guys probably do it for breakfast.
After a bit more chit-chat Geronimo reminded that he should be doing a bit less talking and a bit more killing. We shook hands and he walked off into the city.
(Note: None of the above is sensationalist. Here’s an Al Jazeera story on the Kaibiles, which is a bit more legit than this blog.)