Drug War

Volunteer Medics on the Front Lines of the Drug War

Ambulance drivers in Guatemala see the costs of prohibition up close every day.

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An ambulance speeds through Guatemala City with the 1986 American pop hit "Take My Breath Away" blasting on the radio. The unit is racing back to dispatch-and then another call comes in. An unidentified man has been shot in the head, execution style. The paramedics arrive on the scene and discover the victim's body face up on the sidewalk soaked in blood. Soon another ambulance will come to take the corpse to the morgue. Chances are the killer will never be found.

A heroic army of mostly volunteer first responders comprises Guatemala's Bomberos Voluntarios, a saving grace in a city besieged by drug violence. This town of about 1.1 million is one of the most violent places on Earth because it's a central corridor of the drug trade; about 1 out of every 1,500 residents is murdered here annually. As the U.S. and Mexico pour new resources into fighting the drug war, the violence only gets worse. Government officials estimate that 95 percent of homicides in Guatemala City go unsolved.

The Bomberos Voluntarios are comprised of 4,000 firefighters, ambulance drivers, and paramedics. About 90 percent earn no salary-yet they've proven far more vital than the official government first responders. The Bomberos Municipales "have more equipment and more people," says Herber Díaz, a paramedic with the Voluntarios, "but people [trust us more] because we do everything [and] they're selective."

"It's something that I really love, that I'm passionate about," says Javier Villatoro, a 22-year-old college student who moonlights as a volunteer paramedic. "There's a lot of need," he says wistfully. "A lot of people in need."

Rodrigo González Allendes, a former Chilean ambassador to Guatemala, helped establish the Voluntarios after seeing the deficits in Guatemala's emergency response system. The volunteer approach worked well in Chile, so Allendes had the idea to duplicate that model in Guatemala City.

The city's official first responders are hobbled by the same dysfunctional culture rooted in the drug war that besets many of the official government agencies in Guatemala. Although drug trafficking primarily takes place in rural areas along border regions, gangsters who profit from extortion, kidnapping, and bribery dominate the urban centers. Rampant corruption in Guatemalan law enforcement cripples efforts to combat criminal activity.

Outright corruption is less of a problem among first responders, but the culture of fear that plagues law enforcement extends to the Municipales, who refuse to even acknowledge that Guatemala has a problem with violence. They claim that a majority of their calls are related to accidents or self-inflicted injuries. Speaking out is a great way to end up face up on the sidewalk with a bullet in the head.

The Voluntarios, many of them devout Christians, are more open. The group gave Reason TV unrestricted access to its operations and agreed to allow our cameras to observe an on-duty ambulance responding to emergencies. However, talking candidly about the narco gangs can bring unwanted attention; men who spend every working day treating bullet wounds or carting corpses to the morgue understand best of all the consequences of speaking up. When responding to an accident, they don't pause to ask who, what, or why. That's someone else's job.

One indication of how the Voluntarios are beloved in Guatemala: The central station is littered with mostly useless emergency vehicles and equipment donated by adoring citizens. "You have a satisfaction inside of you that helps you to be OK," says Díaz in broken English. "God is a very important part of this, because if you don't say, 'God please let me help, my brother,' you can lose it." ρ