No doubt that Peace Corps has had a rough year or so in the media. While they've celebrated their 50th Anniversary, they've also been subject to much more scrutiny as than in the past, and rightly so. We've seen the unfortunate death of a PCVs in Paraguay and Mozambique from auto accidents, and most notable the suspension of the Honduras program, and that Guatemala and El Salvador are no longer receiving new training groups.
And the story is pretty intense, and so is one volunteer's response.
If you didn't hear about what caused the suspension in Honduras, it was largely because those three countries had the highest rates of crime and murders, and PCVs were increasingly becoming targets of crime. In fact, the director of PCCentral/South America created a mandate that said Honduras volunteerswere no longer allowed to gather in large groups because they werebecoming large targets for crime. The final straw was when a PCV was caught in the crossfire of a shoot out on a bus robbery gone bad (I believe the bus was also on a common route used by PCVs). While the robbery was just run of the mill, PCVs shouldn't have to worry if a gun fight will break out while they're on a bus. Thankfully, the volunteer was hit in the leg and the injury isn't life threatening. Worst (?), the passengers whobegan the firefight were police officers. And with that, PC made the decision to close up shop in Honduras. I'm not sure what the breakdown is, but volunteers are generally offered the chance to transfer to another country or to early-terminate, and it largely depends on how long the volunteer has left in his/her service.
One Hondurus PCV had a piece publishedin the opinion section of the LA Times. In it, he says that volunteers were safer than it seems. He concedes that volunteers (and gringos in general) were targets for theft and robbery, and that it is commonplace for volunteers to be robbed during their service, but the vast majority are non-violent events. While crime happens, it's usually low key and nothing more than a hassle, as the volunteer has to deal with the police and insurance companies.
And up until that point, I agree with Metzker. While the majority of volunteers I know have been robbed during their two years of service, most of the time it's a simple pick-pocket or bags getting stolen on a bus or while waiting at the station. Usually, the robberies are planned and involve multiple people (to district, to shield the con, and to execute), and that's all the thieves want. They're not looking for a fight. A few times, here in Peru, volunteers have been assaulted or threatened with a gun or a knife, but as far as I know those have passed without the volunteer being stabbed/shot. And unfortunately, there's been a few incidents of assault on a volunteer, including sexual assault and rape since I've been in Peru.
It's a sad reality. While we're greeted into the country and communities simply on the basis of being foreign, we're also targets since we tend to stand out in the crowd. And while there are ways to prevent crimes (be aware of your surroundings, easy on the drinking, go home at a reasonable hour and in groups), it happens. But then again, unfortunately I know people who have been raped and sexually assaulted here in the States.
However, the Metzker aruges that pulling out of Honduras was wrong on two accounts. Firstly, he states that “Assaults, sexual and otherwise, are probably more likely to happen to us here in Guatemala than in the U.S. (depending on where in the States we hail from), but that's sort of part of the deal [volunteers] sign up and agree to come, fully cognizant of the risks.”
Excuse me? Yes, I agree there are some inherent risks from living and working abroad. However, we don't sign up with intentions to get robbed or sexually assaulted. That's just asinine. While come in knowing things are going to be different, dangerous even; but I don't recall ever consenting to get robbed when I joined. And even moreso, getting robbed on a bus is one thing. It happens. Being caught in a fire-fight on a crowded bus, however, is not part of the hustle and bustle of a developing country, and not something many aid organizations subject their employees to.
Rather, a fire-fight on a public bus in the middle of the day goes to show the level of insecurity in the country, and isn't fair to volunteers. We sign up knowing that we'll be in rough conditions, but not to put our lives on the line.
The second argument the author makes is that leaving Honduras brings a bad image to the Peace Corps in-country and reverses the work volunteers have accomplished. What were to happen if the a more serious injury occurred to the volunteer? Or what if Peace Corps had not pulled out and a similar incident occurred with worse ends? And who's to say it wouldn't?
With the Peace Corps dealing with greater public scrutiny, and budget cuts – Peace Corps needs to acknowledge what's working and more importantly what isn't working. Is it worth Peace Corps resources to be spent in a country with high levels of violence (in general) and a possible conflict zone? Contrary to what we believe, Peace Corps won't prevent violence in a country. Aid and development in conflict zones are complex and difficult, and not something that the Peace Corps is capable to do. Aid agencies who work in high conflict zones have 4x4s and security details. Peace Corps rides the bus.
And lastly, the program is suspended, not shut down thus allowing the opportunity to quickly re-open the post if conditions approve. But right now, while there's no specific threats against volunteers, it's clear from the rising crime rates against PCVs and having volunteers getting injured in cross-fire that it was in Peace Corps best interests to suspend the program and put the volunteers' safety first and foremost.