GUATEMALA CITY — The talk at cocktail parties in comfortable parts of town these days is not of politics and currency exchange rates but about who has been robbed and where.
At least a dozen cars are stolen every day, many by armed men at stoplights in the city's most fashionable district.
More than 20 robberies or assaults are reported daily, double the number a year ago. The real total surely is much higher because few people trust police enough to file complaints. Bus holdups and attacks on tourists have soared.
The crime wave reflects economic hardship--87% of Guatemalans live in poverty--and an understandable lack of confidence in the ineffective judicial system.
"Justice does not exist here and no one trusts anyone trying to impose it," said Marta Altolaguirre, a lawyer and newspaper columnist. "The people who work in the courts are not well prepared and the magistrates are highly politicized."
Crime also endangers tourism, which brings Guatemala at least $200 million a year, and is a major test for Carlos Samayoa Cifuentes, the first civilian in decades to head the National Police.
Samayoa said in an interview that buses are particularly vulnerable and he is putting policemen on some that operate in the city, "but it's like a drop in the ocean."
Highways to Honduras are among the most perilous. Newspapers have reported daylight assaults on both buses and private vehicles, some by men in military uniforms.
The Honduran ambassador made a formal complaint in November, after the shooting death of a young Honduran woman who was traveling to Guatemala City for an evangelical meeting.
Passengers on a rural bus gave a severe beating to a man with a pistol and a hand grenade who wounded their driver. The local police chief berated the passengers for "taking justice into their own hands."
Two gunmen attacked a family of Dutch tourists outside the colonial town of Antigua in November, killing a 61-year-old woman. Her death was the third on the same road in less than a month.
A State Department travel advisory for Guatemala warns Americans about violent crime, bus robberies and roadblocks set up by bandits or guerrillas. The German government issued a similar advisory.
Some policemen have been accused of extorting money, and one was arrested as part of a gang charged with robbing a city bus.
Samayoa said the tendency of Guatemalans to blame the police for crime "is understandable, but not justified, because for years the police department has been ignored and used for political purposes."
Officers are paid only a few hundred dollars a month. A policeman wounded or injured on duty receives just one-third of the normal pay.
"It's illogical and incredible," Samayoa said. "It's not much of an incentive to put your life on the line. We have openings, but aren't filling them because we don't want people who aren't trained in police work."
He plans to raise pay by 1993 and provide better training, with foreign help, but that may not be easy.
Early last year, the German government ended a training project conducted in Germany, citing human rights violations in Guatemala. A U.S.-financed program to improve the court system ended in 1990 and, for the same reason, was not renewed.
"The citizens have been indifferent, even negligent, at times by not reporting suspicious activities," Samayoa said. "They don't even want to obey traffic signals.
"We are talking about a citizenry who demand that the law be enforced, but who are far from wanting to comply with it themselves. People see police officers as low-class, as subhuman."