Trouble in Antigua hits tourist trade

21:15, Dec 02 2013

With its cobblestone streets and colonial-era churches and plazas, picturesque Antigua has long been Guatemala's top tourist destination as an oasis away from the crime and chaos consuming the rest of the Central American country.

In recent months, however, the UNESCO World Heritage Site has seen the troubles of the outside world threaten its backpacker charm.

Vehicle and home burglaries are up, and once-reliable public services such as water and rubbish collection have been left unattended across whole blocks.

Many blame political turmoil for the troubles in this city of about 53,000 people. Antigua hasn't had an elected mayor since September 2012 when Adolfo Vivar and several relatives and members of his administration were charged with establishing a criminal network that stole nearly US$3 million (NZ$3.67 million) from the city's treasury.

That's left Antigua unable to attend to basic business and spooked some longtime townspeople, who say they're afraid their charming niche amid the volcanoes could see vital tourism revenue plummet.

Government figures show the number of crimes have spiked in Sacatepequez Department, where Antigua sits, jumping from 148 in the September 1 to November 16 period last year to 181 in the same span this year.


Antigua reported the most crimes in both totals.

According to the latest data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Guatemala's homicide rate came in at 38.5 per 100,000 residents, with 5685 people slain in 2011, making it the seventh deadliest country in the world.

Deputy Interior Minister Arkel Benitez acknowledged the rise in crime in still largely safe Antigua but said the government is pushing back. Hoteliers and other business owners in the city have donated security cameras, and more police commanders have been assigned to the area, Benitez said.

"From January to July, we reduced crimes in Antigua's historic district by 41 per cent," he said. "We had a security plan in place but the police commander in charge of the program died and crime increased again."

Antigua, about 50 kilometres west of Guatemala City, attracts more than 1 million tourists from all over the world.

So far, the town's ills don't appear to have seriously touched hotels and other tourist areas, and its special tourist police force has been operating normally.

Yet Antigua residents are feeling the problems. Early in November, hundreds marched to demand the appointment of a new city administration, saying they were tired of water being cut off, rubbish not being picked up and stoppages on public transportation.

Bus drivers went on strike after one colleague was killed and another wounded in separate attacks because they refused to pay extortion money. The drivers didn't fully re-establish service until the government pledged to crack down on the extortions.

Despite such promises, some Antigua residents said they have already adjusted their daily lives to the new reality.

Paul Phillips, a 70-year-old retiree from Chicago who runs a bed and breakfast in the city, said he has heard about robberies, but has so far managed to avoid them.

"We haven't been affected, because we don't go out at night," he said.