Like in many parts of the world, Latin America has a long tradition of volunteer firefighters, the bomberos voluntarios. These mostly unpaid brigades not only put out fires, they also act as first responders to car crashes and other accidents when the delays of inefficient municipal firefighters and police officers can mean life or death. Such is the case in Chile, for instance, where top-notch fire departments are 100 percent maintained by over 40,000 volunteers.
In some countries, like Guatemala, bomberos voluntarios do the work their state-funded counterparts refuse to take. For that, they are the ones who the local population trust and support voluntarily, as Reason TV documented in a recent ride-along with some of the Central American nation’s altruist heroes.
Guatemala is a major drug corridor between South America and Mexico. Narco gangs thrive in rural areas and along the southeastern border, while street gangs who profit from extortion, kidnapping, and bribery dominate the urban centers. As a result, the country’s capital, Guatemala City, has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Guatemala City’s official, government-sanctioned and funded first responders — the bomberos municipales — downplayed the city’s drug and violence problems and insisted that Guatemala is a safe place to live and visit. But the voluntarios, who receive some money from the government but seemingly maintain enough independence to avoid the same level of political pressure, had a different story to tell.
“The municipal bomberos receive funding from the government and the municipality,” says Herber Diaz, one of the few paid, full-time paramedics on the force. “They have more equipment, and more people. But the trust the people have in us is there because we do everything. They’re selective in their job.”