My Story of Drug Cartels in Guatemala

01/20/2015 10:25

by Luke McGrath

"This is a bad idea…Two dozen Westerners withdrawing cash from an ATM in the presence of armed drug dealers. What could go wrong?

We should not be standing around like this." "I know. Don't these people know where we are?"  So went the exchange between my good friend and I last month as we waited nervously at a gas station in a remote region of Guatemala, an area in the north of the country notorious for its drug cartels.

What had happened was this: Our painfully overcrowded bus had pulled over for a much needed restroom break, whereby myself, my two friends, and about two dozen other fellow travelers emerged from our cramped confines to eagerly use the facilities.

Given how many people there were, it really didn't take that long for everyone to do what they had to do.

I thought we were about to get back on the bus, but then our driver told us that our next stop, for lunch, would not accept cards, so we should make sure we had cash on hand.

This was no problem for me. I had a wallet with cash in it. So did my two friends. But for some reason, just about every single other person on our bus did not.

And so with that, a horde of Americans, Europeans and Australians all proceeded to walk over to the one lonely ATM and line up, single file, to withdraw fistfuls of Guatemalan quetzales.  Now ordinarily, waiting for 20-plus people to use an ATM wouldn't be a terrible thing. Annoying, yes. But not terrible.

However, as one of my friends (who had been living in the country for two years) didn't hesitate to tell me, "Man, we are deep in 'narco' territory. This is really not a good situation for us to be in."  I already knew this. After all, before we had set off on our voyage around the country, he had told me we'd be passing through areas controlled by drug cartels.

Passing through.  Not standing around in plain sight with a bus full of other gringos who were withdrawing oodles and oodles of cash.


They were being loud. They were laughing and joking and having a jolly good old time, completely oblivious to where exactly we were and how much of a spectacle we must have appeared to those who were watching us.  And make no mistake, we were being watched.

Sure, some local kids who had been playing with a soccer ball had brought their game to a pause to ogle us.  But that was not who we were worried about.

It was instead the cartel members who were pulling in to fill up their trucks with gas. That was who had me and my two friends feeling nervous.

But Luke, how do you know they were members of drug gangs?  Easy. We were in a very poor, rural area of the country... and here were guys pulling into this dusty service station in brand-new jet-black Toyota pickup trucks with ultra-tinted windows… and out they would step with handguns stuffed into the backs of their pants.

I'm not making this up.

I wanted to take a photo of them, but in the moment, I was unfortunately not game enough to snap a pic.  I did, however, capture one of the gas station guards, as you can see below.

I'm fine, sir, I'll fill 'er up.

(To be fair, armed gas station attendants are not an unusual sight in Guatemala.)  OK, so what happened next?

Nothing, I'm thankful to say!


The gang members left us alone, and after making a decent dent in the ATM's stockpile of notes, everyone eventually piled back onto the bus, and we were on our way again. There were no holdups, no firefights, no desperate cries for help to the U.S. Embassy… Sorry to disappoint you.



Luke McGrath is the Managing editor, Laissez Faire Letter, © 2014 Laissez Faire Letter, LLC