Guns of Latin America – Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador

My journey started in Havana – probably the safest capital in Latin America. The Castro regime has put so many cops on the streets I was told from the very beginning that any assault on a traveller is unthinkable. Scams, theft – yes. But in terms of violence, it is pretty obvious on the streets of Havana who is the boss.

Journey through gun culture
Then I flew in to Yucatan, Eastern Mexico. As I waited in the queue for passport control, a man in front of me smacked another one in the face really hard; they both got taken away. That was in international airspace. It’s another country here. Everybody get your passports ready.

In the evening I went to a bar. The waiter entertained American tourists by pulling out a deactivated revolver and aiming it at people, while his colleague threw a metal tray on the floor as hard as he could. It was a harmless laugh, but it was also the beginning of my journey through gun culture.

Both in Havana and Yucatan, I only saw handguns on the hips of policemen. In Chiapas, a little further south, I advanced to level two. The area had suffered some turbulence due to the Zapatista rebellions of the Maya population. In awe, I got my first sight of several police squads armed with M4 carbines and M16 assault rifles. After watching a video about the rebellion, and finding myself in a Zapatista village by accident, I understood why they were there. Still, it was a localized reaction to an extraordinary situation; not the status quo. Once I crossed into Guatemala, things changed.

The border was not even a border; more of a walk through. It resembled a refugee checkpoint. I could have easily not even shown my passport. This was a different feel right away – angry gangsta reggaeton blasting out, a wanted "armed and dangerous" poster on the wall, dirty cowboys selling USD, hordes of counterfeit sellers.

Level three – Guatemala is full of guns. First, there were M16s carried by the police. An M16 was literally the first thing I saw after crossing the border. Four cops at the gas station were carrying them by their sight-handles, sipping coffee like a group of businessmen with briefcases. It is normal, though. There are plenty of countries, even in the developed world, where you see guns, as anyone who has ever flown through Heathrow Airport knows.

Then there were the shotguns; a lot more confusing. They were everywhere – at museums, stations, pharmacies, even McDonalds. The part that threw me off weren't the guns as much as the people who carried them. Collectively called "security", they included anyone from fifteen to sixty years of age. Very loosely uniformed (a shirt and a baseball cap), I doubt they were well-trained or underwent extensive tests. I asked a kid with a shotgun bigger than him if I could take a photo, while he was nervously guarding a truck. For a few seconds he was perplexed. Then he frowned and muttered an angry "no" through his clenched teeth.

One time I trekked a volcano. The guide shop gave me a shotgun escort because the path wasn’t too safe. The escort was 16 years old, at the most. As I braved the path, I kept thinking, maybe I should take the shotgun and let him tag along with my walkman! It was ridiculous and a bit unnerving.

Banks are fortresses. One bank I visited had a tower in the center, with two men holding shotguns, another armed trooper at the door and a small window just under the ceiling with a freaking sniper in it! I am not joking. He had his bolt-action ready, crouched behind the ledge. He was scouting the floor beneath him.

Still, the guns were obviously not to be carried by the rest of the population. I won’t lie and say that I saw a Glock resting on the passenger seat in a taxi. But people did find ways to create more security even without the firearms. I guess there can never be too much safety.

It wasn’t until El Salvador, though, that I saw the Central American gun culture in all its magnificence – level 4. A sunny afternoon, a lady was frying corn pancakes, next to her a man was yawning on a chair, stroking an Uzi on his lap. A youth was smoking a cigarette outside an internet café, casually swinging a shotgun from side to side. Walking in a park enjoying nature, you share space with a tactical squadron of six or seven men on bicycles, shotguns strapped to their backs, handguns strapped to their thighs. One of the strip clubs had six large, fat and bald Salvadorians with shotguns. Even the uniforms partly disappeared – a white shirt or T-shirt indicated a good guy, like in a spaghetti western.

I spent quite some time in San Salvador. The shotgun folks were so numerous I quickly figured they were the easiest option for directions. Whenever a traveler asked me for directions and I couldn’t help, I referred them to "the guy with the shotgun".

I pondered this choice of weapon. Even if you wanted to look scary, would you use a shotgun in a shopping mall? Apart from collateral damage, it's ineffective, unless aimed point blank. Then it dawned on me – it’s cheap – a barrel, a pump and a trigger. You can arm five times the number of people with these than with M16s. If you can’t afford uniforms, that must count for something.

The average person keeps guns at home and walks around with machetes. Machetes are everywhere. I don’t know if it is a common household item, or a poor man's shotgun. I asked why I only saw security people carrying guns, if gun possession is legal. I was told many people wear guns, but they are hidden. IANSA (International Action Network on Small Arms) reports 1.6 million guns in Central America, of which only 500,000 are legally registered. Most of those are found in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua as remains of the armed conflicts. Over 70% of homicides in those countries are committed with those guns.

Whether you see guns or not, you know they are there. A simple reminder are abundant signs in bars and nightclubs: a diagram of a pistol in a red circle crossed diagonally, much like a "no smoking" sign. Sometimes it is accompanied by "no guns allowed here". You can hear the frustrated sigh of a new customer, or a few youths deciding on another place for a Friday night because guns are allowed, like a group of smokers in Ireland.

It sounds shocking; at first it is. In a few weeks, however, you stop noticing them; they become a part of the scenery, like a mobile phone. Instead of freaking out, you are often happy to see them. In a country such as El Salvador, at 3:00 in the morning, walking from a bar on a quiet narrow street, seeing a silhouette of a man in the distance waiting for you – distance shortens, you see the outline of a baseball cap and a barrel – phew, it’s the guy with the shotgun.

Alex is the webmaster of Valencia Travel Information – an independent resource on travelling in Valencia, Spain