As it turns out, not much, especially a North American couch and a Guatemalan murder. And it is in their differences that my story unfolds.
An innocent white upholstered couch was deposited off a corner of my property over the weekend. And it wasn’t alone because a desk, two end tables and a large console TV had already been left to hang on the same corner.
At first I was a little excited because it seemed like it might be a local Occupy movement, especially when I misread the sign that said “Free” for one that I imagined to say “Freedom.”
But, after two few days of no coherent platform or set of demands issuing from the couch, I knew that it had little future and had to go. The desk, two end tables, large console TV plus a tacky wire reindeer had already been repossessed leaving the couch looking forlorn. Like an abandoned pet that scratches at the door, I was now the de facto owner.
I did what any US citizen does in a pinch and called my local police department. I explained to the skeptical clerk that I was not a criminal, not a polluter, just a responsible tax payer who had been the victim of a misappropriated attempt at recycling.
But what could be done? She reassured me that she would “talk” to someone and get back to me. After a six hour time lapse I called again and was informed that the couch had been removed by the Highway Department
I was impressed. In America, the Highway Department takes abandoned couches. Who knew?
The next morning I woke early. I was still thinking about the couch and my good fortune. All that had been required to rid myself of an unwanted couch was a short phone call to my local authorities. All was right with the world, there was a run on American stocks, employment gains were mighty and the Dow had jumped more than 400 points in one day.
Still thinking about my local police department, I felt fortunate to live in a country where unwanted couches can be taken at no cost and speedily at that. Even though they barely knew me, in fact didn’t know me at all, they had been so responsive to my needs.
Yet, I had this persistent unease in spite of good local and national news.
My thoughts turned to some friends who live in a different country, Guatemala in fact, with a different type of government and a very different set of resources.
My friends are nice people, maybe even nicer than me. They had five grown children, a flock of grandchildren and happen to be indigenous Mayan. The mother is a weaver and the dad is an x-ray technician. They raised their kids in a concrete block and rebar house with one toilet and no hot water. They have no washing machine or dishwasher, let alone a vacuum cleaner, a dust-buster, a Mixmaster, an IPod or an IPad or…. Well, you get the picture.
Yet they have defied most odds of the economically and politically disadvantaged of their small village. All five kids had professional jobs with good educations. They had an accountant, a social worker, a non-profit manager, a physician and their oldest son became an indigenous rights lawyer.
From the nuclear family of seven their ranks swelled to 17 including all spouses and grandchildren. In traditional style most of the grown children still lived together with their respective families in a single room within the family compound. And all still shared one toilet and a central pila, (a large concrete sink that holds water for washing clothes).
Fausto, the oldest son, worked in the capital, married another indigenous woman, and had two small children on whom he bestowed traditional Maya names. At 32, he was rapidly becoming a shining star in a small galaxy.
All seemed well for this family. On any given Saturday, 15 women and children could be counted milling, breast-feeding and cooking in their tiny kitchen and dirt courtyard. The women clapping hands coated with masa to produce a mountain of tortillas. Talking together and firing off a combination of machine-gun Spanish and native Kakchiquel. Cutting chicken parts and adding them to a soup boiling in cauldron sized pots. The children would be cuddling and laughing with one another. To my outsider eyes the family epitomized small town harmony within a tranquil farming community.
Then on October 18, 2009 we received notification that Fausto had been inexplicably murdered. He had left home on a Friday evening and was found beaten by a blunt object, hacked several times by a machete, stripped naked and left to die in a river ravine less than a mile from their home. Although Guatemala has a reputation for being a dangerous place, this was only the second murder in this quiet city of 40,000 over the past 15 years.
A keening and mourning erupted as this loving and close-knit family tried to process the news. They clung to one another and bravely buried their oldest son, gaining strength from one another and their deep religious faith and rituals. Fausto was eulogized by his father, Flavio, and oldest sister, Mirian, as his grey casket rested in the family living room next to the home altar ablaze with candles.
“This room, always a center for conversations and for celebrations, now holds the casket of our son, Fausto,” Flavio said, opening the service.
Mirian asked the assembled not to abandon the work that Fausto believed in, that of bringing greater rights to indigenous people. In their tradition of carrying the body of the loved one on the shoulders of those who remember him, there was no motorcade, just the crowd of the stricken, estimated to be over 1000, snaking their way the mile to the graveyard at the outskirts of town.
And that was over 2 years ago. We ask on every call to the family if any motive or suspect has been uncovered. The answer is always negative.
Although Comalapa is a tranquil city, Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world and one of the lowest tax rates. With over half the population living below the poverty line there are few resources to fight crime.
In an article from the New Yorker in April 2011 the prospect of getting away with murder in Guatemala was addressed.
Reporter David Grann wrote, “In 2007, a U.N. official declared, “Guatemala is a good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it.”
In Guatemala it is possible to commit murder with impunity because roughly 97% of all homicides remain unsolved.
What do a white American couch and a Guatemalan murder have in common? It turns out to be very little. The couch can be handled by the North American suburban Highway Department within 6 hours but a Guatemalan murder may not be solved by the police for a millennium.
It is certainly tragic for any family to lose a child and to lose one to murder even more so. But to have one’s loss made immaterial by the seeming indifference of officials entrusted with one’s protection amounts to a cruelty.
I am grateful on a daily basis for my town officials who have the financial backing to believe in and uphold the rule of law. My hope is that such “privilege” can spread throughout the world.