Today was the big day. Back at home I had read so much about this zone, hoping I would never have to go there. According to the big, bad internet, living in Zona 18 is like living in hell.
Today was the second day of travelling with Mary and Luis Felipe of the Health department. Last week I asked them if I could join them on their visits to the different centers in the city. Of course they agreed. Yesterday we visited the centers of Santa Maria, 4 de Febrero and Amparo, all located in dangerous and really poor areas of the city. 4 de Febrero was named after the devasting earthquake in 1976 when thousands of people lost their lives and AMG provided relief aid. It is one of the oldest schools that AMG has and the kids that attend this school often have to deal with drug violence and extreme poverty. The reason for the visits was to check if the kids take their vitamins and to see if they might have other health problems.
But today was different. Today we went to Zona 18. The red zone. It was a good thing they told me we were going to this area when I was already in the car, because I was seriously thinking: can I go back? I was pretty nervous because Luis Felipe kept saying that this zone is ‘very, very dangerous’ and that ‘only God can keep us safe’. He even said a prayer for safety when we left the office… Why were we going again? I would soon find the answer.
So, here’s what I know about Zona 18. The two biggest gangs, Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) are both very active in the area, as well as some smaller gangs, and are always trying to expand and protect their territory. The members often take over houses without permission to turn them into drug centers. In 2014 to 2015 there were 154 homicides, most of the victims were between 15 and 25 years old and 70 percent of them were killed with a firearm. The gangs are also known for their ‘extortions’: they force bus and taxi drivers to pay a high amount of taxes to drive through the area. When the drivers don’t pay in time, they get killed. Some of the drivers only work to be able to pay the gangs and (almost) don’t earn any money for themselves. Being a bus driver is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country; over 900 bus drivers have been killed. A bus driver, can you believe it?
With that in mind I was in the back of the car, anxiously trying to hide my little bag (and myself). Luis Felipe lives in Zona 18 so he knew what he was doing, but I had no idea what Zona 18 would look like in real life. Am I going to see dead people? Guns? Drugs? Gangs?
The heroes of Guatemala
About an hour later we safely arrived at the first school, El Limón. A really small school, but I was happy to be at the safe side of the wall. It was a quick visit because the school ‘only’ has 200 students. While Mary was checking if the kids have any health problems, I could look around in the school. The school was surrounded by dangerous looking houses where the mayority of the kids live. I realized that that was the reason why we were there. These kids need this place. They have no choice. They have nowhere else to go. The schools in this area are safe havens where the kids can escape from the violence they see every day. The most beautiful thing about the workers of AMG is that they go where they are most needed. They don’t leave the kids because they live in a dangerous, violent and poor community. That’s exactly the reason why the people of AMG go and work there and I have an enormous amount of respect for these heroes. They work with kids who have seen more in their short lives than I have and they even risk their own lives to work there. Those people are the real heroes of Guatemala, in my opinion.
After El Limón we went to a school called Alameda Norte, where it’s even more dangerous. While Mary was doing her job again, the director of the school showed me around and told me about the lives that the kids in her school live. She told me that on the other side of the wall a lot of people are being killed. These kids have seen too much. The saddest thing about this school is that it’s in an area where young people try to sell drugs to the kids, even when they are only five years old. That’s why there’s always a guard between 12 and 2, to see if the kids are not being harassed on their way home. The world in Zona 18 has gone crazy and there is nothing I can do about it.
I am ‘happy’ I went to this area anyway, because it helps me understand how important the work of AMG is in Guatemala. I know I will never, ever understand what the kids in Zona 18 and other dangerous zones are going through every day, but I know now that these kids are a lot stronger than I am. They don’t have a choice.