Community Vigilantism Keeps Toto Tranquil

By Gustavo Visalli, KF14, Guatemala

“Esto no es Guate, ni Xela. Aquí las calles son seguras. (This is not like Guatemala City, or even Xela. The streets here are safe).”  My wonderful host in the village of Cojxac is reassuring me of the safety of the streets at night. It is my first month as a Kiva Fellow in the region of Totonicapán (aka Toto), Guatemala.  I secretly doubt my host’s words as I nod, since the ominous streets outside seem like the perfect place for a good old fashioned mugging. These prejudicial thoughts first came up as my chicken bus screeched into town. I then planned to spend many long nights safe at home re-reading my copy of The Hobbit. Ah, the crazy nightlife of a Kiva Fellow.

However, my host continued to explain that the community has a strong presence in the region. A thief, he recounted, recently stole an old woman’s bag on the main road. Alert neighbors blew their whistles and the thief was quickly apprehended. They shaved his head, displayed him to the town and warned him that he had 12 hours to gather his belongings and leave, never to return.

Vigilantism in Guatemala
Banners reading “Vecinos Organizados Contra la Delincuencia (Neighbors Organized Against Delinquency)” hang across the main road. My first thoughts were that this community had an unusually enthusiastic public concern regarding loan delinquency, but I soon learned otherwise. Delinquency = crime, not loan delinquency, in this case.

A lack of police presence sparked this community vigilantism. Of course, the question arises: How far can or should these community groups take this street justice? Is the victim of vigilantism always guilty of a crime? These are questions beyond the scope of this post. However we look at it, the intensely tight knit community identity fascinates me. This small scale organization has minimized criminal activity in the streets, and this group mentality is widespread throughout the region. Can most of us say the same for the communities in which we live?

Asociación ASDIR, a Kiva field partner in the region, is built upon this cohesion. Rural communal banks of 4-20 members are regular ASDIR borrowers. Utilizing the strength and financial security of cooperating group members, these entrepreneurs join together for loans which support their various developing working projects. Las Mujeres Emprendedoras Santa Ana (The Enterprising Women’s Group of Santa Ana) is a wonderful example.

If a neighborhood can come together to protect one another from criminals, it can certainly develop strong projects which help develop the community as a whole. ASDIR and Kiva help make this happen.  With such a strong community identity, working together out of poverty is a goal that Kiva, ASDIR, and Kiva lenders are happy to support (want to lend?). Toto is a community built on respect for your fellow compañero, and I look forward to becoming a part of it in the coming months.

Gustavo is a Kiva Fellow working with Asociación ASDIR in Nimasac, Guatemala. He has become an expert in a new extreme sport: highway shoulder hiking, and is excited to live and work in the Guatemala highlands.

About the author

Gustavo Visalli