Here are the facts that led up to the decisions to cut Guatemala volunteer numbers in half and consolidate operations in the Western Highlands (as delivered by Director Carlos Torres, Peace Corps Regional Director for the Inter-American and Pacific Region (IAP) in an informative and honest presentation entitled "How did we get here?" I would like to thank him personally for speaking to us like adults):
- Over a year ago, Peace Corps sent up a red flag about our region when their 2010 yearly portfolio contained alarming information about the safety of volunteers.
- According to Peace Corps safety/security stats from 2010/11, 1 out of 10 volunteers experiences a "serious crime incident" (SCI) each year in Guatemala. SCIs are different from "general crime," (petty theft, etc.), and include incidents such as rape or robbery with assault or weapon, etc. These stats do not account for those SCI's that go unreported by volunteers.
- An April 2011 World Bank study was released comparing homicide rates in Spain and Central America (the two have roughly equal populations). In 2006 Spain experienced 336 murders, while Central America experienced 14,257. Central America trumps Spain by a factor of 40.
- Honduras was rated as having the highest homicide rate in the world by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime report released in October 2011.
- According to the all-volunteer survey taken in 2011, only 15% of PCV's in Guatemala feel safe when traveling. 72% feel safe in their sites.
- Thanks to its skyrocketing homicide rates, the Northern Triangle of Central America was named the "the most dangerous place in the world outside of an active war zone," by the NYTimes, Christian Science Monitor and other publications in 2011.
My perception of my safety remains the same. I feel safe in my site, "safer" than I felt in the neighborhood of Chicago where I lived before Peace Corps. I also know the risks I take when I travel, and I take precautions whenever possible. I don't go where Peace Corps tells me not to go. I carry my money strapped to my body when I travel on buses. I lock my gate at night. But the question isn't "what are we doing here?" What we're doing here is development work. What we're doing here is trying to make it better for the people that don't have a choice to be here or not. Instead my question might be: who thought it was a good idea to shove 220 volunteers into an already-dangerous country where there wasn't a PC admin to support them? Or why, in 2010--a year marked by nightmarish crime statistics in Guatemala--did they welcome my training class, the largest training class in the history of PC/Guatemala? PC/Guate got overzealous and messed up. My PC service is essentially a product of that mistake (the mistake these recent decisions strive to correct). And at the end of the day, I can't really be angry about that. If it weren't for that mistake I would never have come here and my in-site experience has been just too amazing to ever regret.
What did I take away from this meeting? I've accepted that I'm not going to change anybody's mind. I've accepted that I'm being robbed of four months of my service and four months of my readjustment allowance. I've accepted that I'll inevitably leave things unfinished here. I've accepted all of this and am moving forward.