Holding Out

by by Michael Gonda

Balmore and Rosy Rivas do not know what to do. Two weeks ago, the owners of a large cattle farm in the Northern Guatemalan state of Taxisco had their third child kidnapped in five years.

Their 16-year-old son, Osmond, was heading to his school in Santa Rosa, a town eight hours north of Guatemala City, when three armed men hijacked the bus he was riding as it reached the threshold of the village.
Passengers said the men went straight for Osmond. They kept a gun on the driver, one gun on Osmond and the third on the other passengers. When the bus came to a seemingly random stretch of field, the men told the driver to stop, and two of them got out with Osmond. Then they had the driver wind through the Pan-American Highway for nearly two hours before letting it free.
Eleven days have passed between Osmond's abduction and the writing of this story and the Rivas family has heard very little about the well being of their son. The kidnappers called the first night to inform the family they had their child, but they cut the line shortly after Osmond came on the phone. Then they called once more to tell the family that they had three days to come up with 1.5 million quetzals ($200,000) or else their son would be killed. That was nine days ago. "It's like asking the family to kill themselves," Osmond's uncle, Juan Rivas, said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "Nobody has that kind of money. The only thing is to sell their farm, but nobody can buy right now."
The struggle is nothing new to the Rivas family, nor to most Guatemalans. In recent years, kidnappings and violent crime have become commonplace in a country that was once for its seemingly eternal spring. Now, it is being overtaken by a fresh wave of lawlessness in cities and rural areas alike.
Guatemala has a legacy of violence, stemming most recently from a decade-long civil war that ended in 1996. But the recent statistics of violent crime boggle the mind: in 2007, 5,600 people were murdered. In 2008, this number rose to 6,200. Roughly 17 people were killed each day in a country that has as many people as Illinois or Pennsylvania. It makes Guatemala the single most dangerous country in Central and South America.
In January, 10,000 Guatemalans participated in a Peace Walk in Guatemala City to call for an end to the murder, rape and abduction that has overwhelmed the country. Leading the march, Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada Toruno of Guatemala City told his audience, "The year 2008 ended with the sad and lamentable memory of our dear mother country in a tragic blood bath. Without exaggerating, it was one of the most violent of recent history."
President Álvaro Colom Caballeros, who took office last January, pledged to deal with the country's high crime and murder rates both by tackling corruption in the security forces and judiciary and also taking on the drug cartels. It seems, however, that he has been unable to make any legitimate progress since assuming office. A poll conducted by Guatemala's national newspaper, Prense Libre, found that 90 percent of the country's citizens are afraid of being kidnapped; 78 percent are afraid to go outside. Nobody is spared by the violence. Children and adults, both rich and poor, are victims.
The Rivas family is not as wealthy as the kidnappers might assume. Most of the machinery on Valmore's farm was purchased through bank loans. But the gangs see every acre of his farm and every tractor as a sign of deep pockets, and the Rivas family has suffered greatly because of it.
In 2004, his 15-year-old daughter Dairina was pulled from the doorway of the family's home and held for days at gunpoint. Then, in 2007, Osmond's older brother Emerson was abducted by a group of men while he was driving to the family farm. After three days, the abductors sent the family his index finger with a threat to cut off each extremity, one by one, until they paid a ransom of 1 million quetzals. In each case, the Rivas children escaped: Dairina was released and immediately left for San Francisco, while a man walking past a shack heard Emerson moaning from within and sent word to the Rivas family.
This time, however, things seem different. The kidnappers are emboldened by the new wave of violence and refuse to accept anything less than their initial ransom. When they called Valmore three days ago, he offered them 35,000 quetzals with a promise to pay the rest as soon as he could.
"Is that what your son is worth to you?" the voice on the other end of the phone asked.
"He's worth everything, more than I even have," Valmore told them. When he asked to speak with Osmond, the line went dead.
Even if the Rivas family manages to secure Osmond, they know that Guatemala is no longer safe for them. The problem, however, is finding a country that is. "We don't have any options," Valmore's brother, Nelson Rivas, said in a phone interview from Guatemala. "In Mexico it is the same. In El Salvador it is the same. We just don't know what we can do."
Unlike many families in Guatemala, the majority of the Rivas family has visas to enter the United States. But because the official government is not threatening them, their chances of being granted political asylum are small. Living stateside illegally is simply not an option.
The family home in Santa Rosa has become a constant place of worship. All day and all night, they pray for Osmond, for their family and for Guatemala. Emerson cries every time the family gathers to pray. "He thinks they're going to do even worse things to his little brother," Nelson says. "I can see it in his face."
Michael Gonda is a B'09.5