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'Research Is Not Worth Getting Killed Over'

Guatemala: A USC student says highway robberies are not isolated incidents.

January 21, 1998|JENNIFER JOHNSON | Jennifer Johnson is a PhD student in educational policy, planning and administration at USC

Last July 19, I had just begun a short tour en route to Honduras from Guatemala City to look at the Mayan ruins of Copan. About one hour outside the city, my van was ambushed in broad daylight by automatic weapons-toting men. They climbed into the van and forced the driver through a road barrier off the main highway onto an unmarked, overgrown road up the side of a mountain. Once there, they robbed all 10 of us, one at a time, searching under our clothes and undergarments, groping everywhere. Then they made us lie face down in a line with our fingers laced behind our heads while they ransacked the van. They slashed the tires and left us there. No one was raped, thank God.

But the similarities to the highway hijacking of the students from Maryland made me angry to hear that what happened to me happened to them, but worse. In my case, the Guatemalan police took us to their station, which had no phone, electricity or running water. They made a list of our stolen belongings so we could turn it in to our insurance companies. But they did not ask us anything specific about the robbery itself. One of the people in my group asked if the police would catch the robbers. The officer chuckled and said they would never be caught.

My incident did not merit serious attention by anyone I talked to in Guatemala. It was taken so lightly, in fact, that the Guatemalan tour operator that I was traveling with said, "Sorry about the bad luck. Let's go on with the tour." I declined and asked to be taken back to Guatemala City. The tour company refused to refund my money until a month later, under pressure from a U.S. tour agency they contract with.

Though I am a graduate student at USC, I was not on an tour organized by the school but a short trip arranged through a student travel agency. My situation is a little different from the Maryland students' because I am in a PhD program. My travels are to do research for my dissertation, and my plans are made entirely on my own. But my concern is that what happened to the Maryland students is not an isolated incident. I saw the Guatemalan ambassador to the U.S. on television saying this was an unfortunate but isolated incident. That women were raped perhaps raises the stakes and makes the incident less ordinary. But brazen daylight highway terrorism is not unusual there.

I was not doing anything stupid or careless as a traveler. I read the State Department travel advisories, talked to other people about safety issues in Guatemala and felt confident that I was taking reasonable precautions to be safe. I had never heard warnings about the specific route to Honduras from Guatemala City, although I had been warned of other dangerous routes, such as the road to Tikal. I fear that the Guatemalan authorities are not accurately reporting the number of highway robberies, and as a result the State Department advisories may not be completely accurate. I know, however, that a new task force was recently formed in Guatemala specifically to deal with highway robberies, so perhaps the situation is improving.

I hope that students think twice before going to Guatemala because of the air of lawlessness.

Certainly there are many students who travel in Guatemala without any trouble. But I learned firsthand that when you do experience trouble, the Guatemalan authorities may not be well equipped to handle the situation. If you are willing to take the risk, OK. For myself, I decided to change my dissertation topic. Research is not worth getting killed over.

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