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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 October 2005, 10:19 GMT 11:19 UK
Surviving gun crime in Guatemala
By Linda Pressly
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

The prevalence of illegal firearms in Guatemala leads to thousands of deaths each year, and an unrecorded number of survivors left with life-changing disabilities.

Gustavo Masariegos
Mr Masariegos believes he was targeted because of his job

When I met Gustavo Masariegos in the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security hospital (IGSS), it was eight months since he had been shot.

He lifted his head from the pillow to show me the scar on his neck where the bullet entered, and in a split second transformed his life.

Gustavo is now a quadriplegic.

Before two men tried to kill him on the street, Gustavo was a judge with 12 years experience under his belt. And this was not a random attack.

In the first few months of 2005 alone, two other judges and a public prosecutor were shot and killed in separate incidents in Guatemala.

I asked Gustavo who had tried to kill him.

"Criminals never show their faces," he told me. "I believe there was an intellectual author apart from the gunmen.

"They could be former police officers, soldiers or guerrillas, or maybe members of a gang. I dealt with a lot of serious cases concerning those kinds of people."

Bloody legacy

Mapof Guatemala
Population: 13 million
Capital: Guatemala City, 2 million
Civil war from 1960-1996 killed more than 200,000
Guatemala is a nation still recovering from decades of civil war.

One of the legacies of that bloody conflict is violence, both in homes and on the streets. Another is weapons.

The United Nations has estimated that there are at least 1.5 million illegal arms in Guatemala, making it the most heavily armed country in Central America.

In 2004, nearly 4,500 Guatemalans died a violent death, and eight out of 10 of them were shot.

But official figures do not record the number of people who have been disabled by the violence.

Dr Juan Carlos Lorrenti is treating Gustavo Masariegos in the IGSS hospital.

A specialist in rehabilitation for over 15 years, Dr Lorrenti has seen a change in how his patients have acquired their injuries.

"We used to see mostly victims of accidents, agricultural, work or traffic.

"But now I would say 70-80% of our patients are here as a result of violence, and especially gun shots."

Mistaken identity

Alex Galvez
In Guatemala there aren't many chances for disabled people
Alex Galvez, Transitions Foundation
Alex Galvez is another casualty of gun violence.

He was shot when he was 16, a case of mistaken identity in a gunfight between two rival gangs in Guatemala City.

At the time, Alex was just on the way to his local shop to get some soft drinks for lunch.

"I thought I was going to die," he said. "And I wanted to die, because in Guatemala there aren't many chances for disabled people."

But Alex's life has turned around. He is one of the founders of an organisation based in Antigua, Guatemala's second city, run by and for people with disabilities.

The Transitions Foundation provides specialised services - like prosthetics and wheelchairs - to people who arrive from all over Guatemala.

In a developing country like Guatemala there is nothing automatic about access to basic resources.

And with a disabled population of perhaps more than a million, many poor disabled people rely on non-governmental organisations to help them with essentials.


The Transitions Foundation promotes a philosophy of independent living for disabled people.

Transitions basketball team practice
The Transitions Foundation offers "life skills training" to the disabled
This is still a novel idea in Guatemala, but it has worked for Alex.

"Even my family thought I would be a burden," he said, "now I'm helping them because I have a good salary."

Gustavo Masariegos is also hoping to go back to paid employment.

He does not think he will ever work again as a judge, but he is hoping to start a law practice with some friends.

He says his rehabilitation has been good. Initially he could not move anything from the neck down, but now he can lift his hand, and feed himself with special apparatus.

Like Alex Galvez, Gustavo will be a wheelchair user.

Neither Gustavo Masariegos or Alex Galvez is optimistic the violence will diminish in Guatemala.

"In the past 10 years it has remained constant," Gustavo told me.

"Every day there are killings in all social classes, men and women."

And at Transitions, Alex regularly sees the result of this trigger-happy nation as he meets yet another Guatemalan coming to terms with a life changed forever by a bullet.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 20 October, 2005, at 1102 BST.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 24 October, at 2030 BST.

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19 Oct 05 |  Crossing Continents

20 Oct 05 |  In Pictures

13 Oct 05 |  Americas

13 Oct 05 |  Americas

09 Jun 05 |  Americas

06 Oct 05 |  Country profiles

11 Oct 05 |  Country profiles


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