Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Guatemalan jungle: temples, drugs and vampires

My Guatemalan driver spoke English, but his accent was really thick.

"Uh, desculpeme," I answered. "I'm sorry... No entiendo. I didn't understand what you said."

"I jess say to you dees trock ees berry strong!"

He had picked me up at 6am and was driving me in a beaten-up Toyota an hour-and-a-half into what was once forest. The dense Petén jungle of northern Guatemala conceals an area in the Mayan world, which extends from Honduras to southern Mexico, where the ruins are most concentrated. Archaeologists are constantly uncovering new sites.

The smell of smoke followed us as we passed frequent smouldering plots of blackened land. The jungle is also being cleared, in an era of global warming, at one of the fastest rates in the world by illegal settlers who slash and burn the forest to clear it for cattle ranches and palm oil farms. Sometimes ranchers turn looters when, in doing so, they discover sites before the archaeologists.

We pass a military checkpoint, a common sight in these parts. The region has a reputation of being lawless and has become the main battleground of the drug cartels—Los Zetas, the Gulf cartel, the Sinaloa Federation and the Mendoza clan—in a turf war. For several years the fearsome and violent Zetas, special forces soldiers who deserted the Mexican army to act as enforcers of Northern Mexico's Gulf cartel before breaking away to form a cartel of their own, has been trafficking with impunity in these remote jungles, perfect for landing plane loads of cocaine on cleared airstrips. Establishing themselves in the sparsely populated Petén in 2007 barely a decade after the 36-year-long Guatemalan civil war ended, they presented a challenge to the fledgling democracy. In 2010, equipped with assault rifles, grenade launchers and armoured vehicles, Los Zetas encountered a Guatemalan army patrol and battled it to a stalemate. They provoked a state of martial law in 2011 when, near the town of La Libertad—on my route in the following days—they tied up and decapitated over two dozen farm workers who had no connection to the drug trade and scrawled a "you're next" message to the ranch owner on a wall in blood from a severed leg. He was reportedly helping the Gulf cartel. This is the real Breaking Bad down here.

Base camps for active archaeology sites have guards, and the drug gangs see that kind of permanent presence as a threat in detecting their activities. The temple site to which I was heading, El Zotz, is however inactive, though recent excavation of a hill of jungle detritus revealed elaborate stucco masks on the walls of a pyramid, dubbed the Temple of the Night Sun. Zotz means bat in the local language; the site is so called due to the clouds of bats that fill the sky at dusk from caves in the nearby limestone cliff. Vampire bats.

We entered a small village and my driver dropped me at a wooden shack, seemingly a family home with happy children, welcoming adults, and chickens and a dog roaming the dirt floor. It is the village comedor, or restaurant.

"You have brake-fast hair. I peek you up hair in two dace."

He said my guide to El Zotz would be along shortly, and then he was gone. A warm, smiling lady with a leathery face and a long skirt presented me with a plate of scrambled eggs and tomato, stewed black beans, salty cheese and tortillas, and poured me some sweet coffee, a typical breakfast here. As I tucked in I mused over my half relief, though the driver was a nice guy, that perhaps the new guide would speak clearer English. He arrived soon enough and addressed me with a  gentle, "Meester."

"Buenas dias," I said. I would be spending two days on a trek with him to learn about the jungle and this ancient Mayan site. "Me llamo Wayne. ¿Habla inglés?"

He shook his head. "Español," he said.

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