“1 in 10 Peace Corps Guatemala volunteers is involved in a serious crime incident.”
The conference this week began with a “How We Got Here” presentation by the Inter-American-Pacific Regional PC Director. He talked about the security reviews and meetings that have taken place the past year in the region. He talked about numbers and incidents and safety. He talked about volunteer surveys and how our own fears have been measured and analyzed. And really it all boiled down to this: Guatemala is a dangerous place.
I know this, we all do. The Diario and the Prensa are daily filled with gruesome stories (and terrifying photos) of shootings and vendetta killings, protests and armed robberies. And the rate of impunity here means that most criminals will never be caught and never face justice. I myself have been the victim of a crime. I am one of those statistics that makes PC Guatemala look so bad.
“The northern triangle of Central America is the most dangerous place in the world to live, apart from an active war zone.”
The Regional Director mentioned the frog in a pot allegory: If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water it will jump out, but if you place it in a pot and slowly bring it up to a boil it will stay put and cook to death. Peace Corps Guatemala is that frog. This year we will celebrate 50 years of Peace Corps in Guatemala – 50 years of continuous service, something that almost no other PC operation can claim.
But we are cooking.
“Peace Corps Guatemala must improve volunteer support.”
So what do we do? Do we pull out? Do we continue operations like normal and hope that someone turns down the heat and Guatemala magically becomes a safer place to live and work?
They aren’t ready to close up shop. Peace Corps is welcome and appreciated here. It has sturdy foundation and has the potential to do so much more good. But things will not be allowed to run as they have previously. Which brings us back to the All Volunteer Conference.
First order of business: the roughly 220 member PCV family needs to be cut drastically. Forced early COS (close of service) is the first step and is being mandated for volunteers nearing the end of their 2 year term. The March class will leave in February. The June class will leave in March. If the tears and anger and pleas for exceptions were any indication, many of these individuals will be leaving projects half finished. I understand. When your service is only for two years, and the general consensus is that nothing really gets done the first year, those last few months in site become precious.
Second order of business: centralize operations. Currently, Peace Corps Guatemala operates in something like 17 of the 22 departments of Guatemala. One of the main issues that PC Guatemala has to deal with is the instability and insecurity inherent in the transportation system here. If I’m remembering the presentation correctly, 60% of security incidents happen on transport. They want to implement safe transport systems (like Peace Corps run shuttles along major highways) to curtail these issues. This would be much easier if we weren’t so spread out. So, you cut the Verapaces, Huehuetenango, San Marcos and the Oriente and you’ve got a more manageable area of 5 contiguous departments to deal with.
This means that 50 volunteers have to be moved. Before March 24th.
But not all of them will make the move. Given all of the above, PC is offering all volunteers the option of COS – no questions asked. And many are taking that option, whether it be due to safety concerns, unwillingness to do a site change, aversion to the many new policies to be put in place or simply the chance to take a respectable exit from a variety of unfortunate or unfulfilling living or working situations. From my 28 person training class alone there are at least 10 taking the early COS option and various others still on the fence. I think when all is said and done that PC Guatemala will have very little trouble reaching their under 100 volunteers goal.
So, what am I doing?
When it finally sunk in that Santa Cruz would no longer be an option, no matter what (I dealt with a period of denial) I began to consider my options:
- Move to a new site for the remaining 6-9 months of service.
- Take the early COS.
Of course, both of those options have various other sub-options. During the conference I actually wrote out every possible gameplan/timeline I could wrap my mind around and came up with at least 10 distinct choices (go back to school in April/October/January, COS immediately but stay in Guatemala for a while, travel for the summer, live in Reno/Vegas/Seattle/the Philippines for the summer…) all with varying pros and cons.
After some thoroughly unpleasant days of indecisiveness, I have come to a decision: I will be taking the site change and staying in Guatemala.
I’m sure one of the first reactions to that decision will be to ask, “Why?” Various fellow volunteers have wasted no time in asking me the same thing. And it hasn’t been particularly easy to answer.
The site change is going to be hard as I will have to repeat those first few months of transition all over again and this time with a much smaller support system (many of my closest friends here have opted to take the early COS… two leaving as soon as February 7th). I will have to navigate a new work environment and will have to accept the fact that some things will just not be possible in such a short timeframe. I will have to leave the friends and connections and comforts (including my beloved private bathroom) that I have created in Santa Cruz for something completely unknown.
But I can’t get over the fact that I signed up for two years of service and have only completed 15 months of that. I committed myself to the “serve where sent” mindset of Peace Corps and if I leave now I will not feel as if I had done all I could. My service would feel unfinished. Plus, in the interest of full disclosure, none of the options offered a really good alternative for the months between COS and going back to school in the fall… I don’t have a home to go back to (though many have graciously offered to let me play vagabond in their homes) and don’t know what I would do for work. So, in the end, I guess I’m just not ready to call it quits yet. Call it stubbornness. Call it stupidity. Call it cowardice. I’ve done all three.
What the next few weeks have in store are already weighing heavily on me. I’ll have to break the news to the mayor, the rest of the muni and the educators I was going to do the bottle school project with and deal with what that means for my credibility… while still attempting to salvage what I can for my Degree Project. I will have to bring an end to my youth groups and attempt to explain to them why I lied when I said I would be here until October. I will have to say goodbye to my old host family and my neighbors and leave my most cherished relationships in Guatemala. I will have to pack up my apartment. And all the while I will have to deal with the guilt of leaving Santa Cruz with so many promises unfulfilled and the heartbreak of opportunities lost.
Of course, there is a silver lining (there always is) but I’m still reeling from the upheaval of the last few days and the string of goodbyes I’ve already had to make, so I’ll get to those later. But I am intent on moving forward and, while perhaps not excited for the changes to come, am definitely curious to see what is in store.