A Thief in the Day

Inevitably, we all reach that moment in our relationship with Guatemala that has to go beyond dating. That moment that tests our meddle, commitment, intentions, our resiliency and our very capacity to overcome. It’s a loss of innocence and of a romanticized notion that a halo of protection exists around those of us that are here to do good.

That moment happened on Friday, June 3 when we stopped at Esso Las Majadas in Guatemala City, behind Las Majadas shopping center as we made a gas and ATM pit stop before heading to Chiquimula and Puerto Barrios to visit family. It’s a self-service station with three main points of entry to two freeways (one leading you to the historic district, then further East; the other leading you to the wealthy Zone 10) and just behind it the two large malls, Tikal Futura and Miraflores, that serve as anthills of consumerism. The police use it as their coffee stop, two security guards with shot-guns stand at each corner of the store, an endless number of attendants buzz around checking oil, pumping gas, flirting with the women drivers. One man by the front pump area writes down license plates of all the cars that come in and out of the gas station. By the gated fence that separates it from a bank, young guys sit on the grass, chow down on their sandwiches laughing while traffic remains at a standstill just beyond the gas station. It is an intersection space, tricksters congregate and things move quickly between breaths.

We pulled up to the rightmost pump with the most space, Brad got out to pump, I put my cellphone in the glove compartment, got my wallet. I then walked in front of the truck and told Brad I was going to the ATM. He nodded and proceeded to pay with his debit card. I looked around and got the lay of the land before crossing. Once inside I began my battle with the ATM machine which continued to refuse my card. I tried a second one and finally it worked. With money in hand I I felt an itch to grab some drinks and snacks for the road so we wouldn’t have to stop too much.

I reached the cashier and she took ages to get my change back. Brad had finished pumping and saw me talking to the cashier. Through the outside of the window he waved at me, I told him everything was fine, but asked him with my fingers indicating cash if he had cash to pay the gas. He didn’t understand me, so he walked into the store and I asked him if he had cash. “Oh yeah, the card worked,” he said right next to me at the cashier’s registrar. That’s strange, I thought, that my card didn’t work. I wanted to get back to the car and just start our trip because it was already 12:30. I got my change. “Let’s go,” I said and we headed out the door quickly.

Once in the car I opened the glove compartment looking for my cellphone to call my cousin and give him a heads up that we were running late. But I couldn’t find my phone, not in the glove compartment, not in the side door, not where we put the drinks. So I figured Brad had hidden it for safety reasons. “Where’s my phone?”

“I dunno, babe, you’re always putting it in different places, why don’t you just leave it in your backpack?” Maybe it was in the backpack. So I turned around to reach for the backseat where all three backpacks with Brad’s MacBook Pro, my MacBook Pro and digital camera were all side by side like small obedient children.
But only one of them was there, which I found odd. I looked around and then asked.

“Did you move the backpacks?” Annoyed he said, “No I didn’t move the backpacks, why would I do that?” And then we both turned to the backseat, looked at one another, looked at the back seat and then yelled, “SHITT!!” It was a moment of sheer panic. We looked around immediately, I checked the camper shell to see if it was broken, nothing, I asked the guy taking the plates down if he’d seen anything, nothing. I asked the guards, they shrugged. I asked the guy selling lottery tickets, nothing, the attendants, nothing. The guys sitting on the grass, nada. Nobody, but nobody had seen a thing.

“Let’s check the cameras!” Brad said. And that’s exactly what we did, we ran towards the convenience store, went behind the cash register and asked the camera guy to rewind the tape to 12:20 and to let us watch it with him. We told him we’d been robbed. He obliged and slowly rewound the tape. Everything was in slow motion. And then we watched the crime unfold. It was both a gift and a curse. We saw our truck pull up to the station from two camera angles, the attendants, the people entering the convenience store, me getting out of the truck, we saw all the action from a third person perspective, the way you imagine you would watch your funeral if you could somehow stage it like a Fellini film. Course it makes you realize why the soul can’t bear to watch its down death because the reality is too stark.

In black and white we watched how around 12:22 PM the thief, a thin, short man with short black hair, a long-sleeved white shirt and dark pants – he looked like a “waiter” Brad said later – walked up to the truck, looked inside, opened up the passenger seat, took two backpacks from the back seat, closed the door, walked across the parking lot, right in front of the guards with the shotguns, the man taking the plate numbers, the three gas attendants and the guy selling lottery tickets. He got into a black or dark green (depending on who you ask) van that already had its door wide open like a big black yawn. Barely able to hold up both laptops because of the weight of each he climbed into the van whose plates could not be identified by the camera. He then drove onto the bumper to bumper traffic and disappeared into the smoggy afternoon. Two minutes later we popped out of the convenience store and got in our truck. And then we got out again, frantically into the world.

I wanted a copy of the footage. Brad wanted to call credit cards. I wanted to call the police, but nobody knew the number until someone said *110. Brad was pale and livid and my hands were shaking as I held the phone. “Guatemala Police Department Unit, how can I help you?”

I was surprised how calm my voice sounded: “Buenas tardes seño, can you please do us the favor of sending someone out to Esso Las Majadas? We’ve been robbed.”

12 comments on “A Thief in the Day”

  1. Oh Jeez, that sucks. I have had several friends robbed in Guate these days for leaving cars unattended. Some have been robbed at gunpoint with the police in plain view, imagine that. At least you’ve got your car and no weapons were pointed at you. Not that it is any great consolation, of course, nor does it make it right, but it always could’ve been worse.

  2. “a romanticized notion that a halo of protection exists around those of us that are here to do good.”

    Yes I remember losing that notion as well. Good luck recovering / replacing your gear..and be safe!

  3. lost a truck in ZONE 2….while helping translate for deaf kids parents, who were receiving free hearing aids…I was really pissed for awhile, but it was partly my fault for not locking the steering wheel….the key was at my suegras. I still tell people I have never been robbed in GUATE….the truck was the only thing in 21 years and I didn’t have a gun put in my face….so I count myself as blessed…..I imagine that is the same feeling you will have
    5 years down the road, but what a pisser for now……saludos y con cuidado sigue su magnifico adventura!!!!!

  4. Your meddle has been tested. You are fully committed.

    All the same, I’m holding you in the light.

  5. I guess this isn’t going to be much of a consolation but that’s awesome prose to describe being robbed.

    Given our battles with ATMs, I hope no further misfortune hit you. A couple of Canadian tourists tried to take money out in Antigua today, specifically asked for money over the counter rather than the ATM.

    The desk clerk refused, pointing them in the direction of the ATM and claiming to have no knowledge of any problems with them. Par for the course when the MD of BAC storms out of meetings about the issue.

  6. Kara: Your prose is so good, and I wish it were fiction. The idea that this happens in broad daylight –and with no seeming sense of urgency on the part of the thief — is bad enough. But the knowledge that at least several people at the gas station were in cahoots with this guy is even creepier, at least to me. Did the cashier rig the ATM you used? How much were the license plate scribes paid? I think we should do a Kickstarter to buy you new computers. Be safe.

  7. ugh…I got kidnapped in Quito, Equador by…a motorcycle cop!!! He was drunk and when he passed out I escaped. Don’t go near Eq…worse than Guat…

  8. Ahhh frustrating news – good luck with retrieving needed objects – computer etc etc. Please take good care – Guate is definitely on a slide in past 3 years, when it comes to robbery, guns on scooters at red lights etc. esp in the city. On the other hand, many like you guys are pitching in – hope your next days are a wonderful change!

  9. Great writing, horrific experience. Our boat was stripped of all valuables they could carry the second year we were here. I know the feeling and the time and frustration of the aftermath.
    So sorry.

  10. From the description, my guess would be that an attendent (low paid, high turnover, in a position to view into cars) could be indicating to bystanders (not employees, just friends of attendants) with hand signals.

    I doubt everybody in a position to view could be complicit, but they’d have to be watching to realize which people are associated with which car. But the coordination needed to hit the right car in the moment it was possible — that suggests a strategy. If you got the tape, watch again, and pay attention to the attendants.

  11. Good Lord! What intense and suspenseful writing! When I lived in Zona 10, I had a friend over who went out for a Coca-Cola run; just a walk down the street. He came back almost immediately white as a sheet after having been robbed. The next day I asked my friend, who was an armed guard, if he had seen anything. Yes! He said, I saw the whole thing! So when I asked him why he didn’t do anything, he said, ‘because I guard this building, not that one.’

    I wonder (with Jeremy) if the attendants were in cohoots with the burgle-team. Did you get a copy of the tape to keep? You should post it — put some shame into them.

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