A Guatemalan (Sad) Story
Guatemala City, Guatemala
First off, I want to preface this by saying that the incident I am going to
describe happened on my third trip to Guatemala. I have enjoyed past travels
there and, despite this incident, I intend to head back next year as part of
a trip to celebrate my 60th birthday. I am posting this as a warning to other
travelers who have to pass through Guatemala City.
I was on my way to Huehuetenango and had to get a bus (Transport Valesques, I
think was the name of the company) in Zona 1. Even though it was around one in
the afternoon, I took a cab. It is an unpleasant neighborhood, but if you
want to catch that bus, that’s where you have to go.
Anyway, I bought my ticket and got on the bus, putting my one bag in the rack
directly over my seat. A few moments later someone outside called to me at
the window next to my seat. He was holding a credit card and asked me if I
had dropped it. It was right then, as I turned to speak to him, that someone
on the bus grabbed my bag and took off. It couldn’t have been more than a
minute before I noticed the bag was gone. At that moment, my vacation was
effectively finished. That bag had my spare prescription glasses, medication
and other items that couldn’t be easily replaced.
It was only later that I learned more about what actually happened, and I
want to pass some of that on. First off, the thieves who pull off jobs like
this usually work in groups, as many as a dozen people might have been
involved. My bag was big and distinctively colored (an LL Bean duffel, for
those of you who know the line); whoever actually took it would have had to
carry it past the bus driver, his helper and several bus company employees
who were standing outside, near the bus door. In all probability they were
involved: how many people carry large bags OFF a bus just before it leaves?
My bag, I was later told, might well have been sitting in a back room of the
So of course the bus company folks didn’t see a thing. They refused to call
the police for me. They could not tell me where I might find the nearest
police station. It was only with a small bit of luck that I did find a passing police
Here I should mention that I am an Auxiliary Police Officer with a
Department in a large American city. I carry Police ID which usually gets me
a bit of consideration and professional courtesy from officers in other
countries. Not here. These guys couldn’t have cared less. They finally agreed
to take me for a cursory ride around the neighborhood. With no description of
the “perp” or any idea of where he might have headed, there wasn’t a whole
lot more that I could expect them to do.
It then took a whole lot more coaxing to get them to take me to their station
house – not before a stop for gas that took even more time and, incidentally,
guaranteed that my bag would be long, long gone.
Fortunately, I was able to get a police report – absolutely necessary if I
was going to file an insurance claim. Just as a side bar here, if you carry
baggage insurance and file a claim, you will find that your insurance company
will require ORIGINAL RECEIPTS – not copies – for any items you are claiming.
They don’t usually mention that when they take your premium.
In talking to the commanding officer of the local police station – who turned
out to be my only help in this whole thing – I found out that this sort of
theft is very VERY common in Guatemala City, and particular in Zona 1. Most
cases never get reported. Sometimes, as could have happened easily to me,
victims don’t even know they have been hit until they are far away from the
scene of the crime. These criminals are not street hoods looking for a quick
score: they are professionals and they are well organized. And they are
very dangerous. I was told that there were probably a few watching me to
make sure I wasn’t able to chase after the thief if I had spotted him. If I
had, they would done whatever was necessary to stop me. Guess I can consider
myself lucky that I didn’t? And to point out just how professional these
thieves were, within an hour of taking my bag, they had charged over a
thousand dollars on one of my credit cards!
Now, I am a fairly experienced traveler. I usually take as many precautions
as is practical, and then some. This trip, I had been advised that there had
been a increase in robberies from persons. That is, holdups at gun or knife
point. I had therefore placed some of my cash, travelers’ checks, my camera
and a credit card in my bag. I carried a “fake” wallet with some small bills
and “throwaway” ID to give up – if I had to – to potential bad guys.
My mistake here was letting my guard down for a matter of seconds, but that
was all it took. I am posting it with the hope that it will help prevent the
same thing from happening to other travelers to Guatemala City. I’ve also come
up with a list of tips, more or less specific to that part of the world, that
might be of help. Click here for some of those tips.