Monday, 14 February 2011

TV Review - Toughest place to be a...Paramedic BBC2 9pm

A paramedic's life is a rum one. Unsociable hours, cleaning up alcopop flavoured sick and dealing with cretins are all part of the job description. However it's a cake walk compared to their Guatemalan counterparts.

In the first of a three-part series that sees British workers travel to far flung destinations to work in extreme environments, plucky paramedic Angie Dymott swaps the mean streets of Cardiff for the meaner streets of Guatemala City.

The capital of this central american backwater ravaged by decades of civil war has one of the highest murder rates in the world as a result of rampant poverty, a corrupt and ineffectual police force and heavy duty gang violence.

I was in Guatemala City in 2005 and it was so dangerous that at a brief stop to change buses the company actually locked the passengers in the bus station as we waited for the transfer to prevent us from getting robbed. Apparently things have gotten worse.

To say this lawlessness comes as a culture shock to Angie is an understatement. In six years as a paramedic in Cardiff she has never seen a gunshot wound yet for two weeks working with the local paramedics gangland killings and drive-bys shootings are the norm in her line of work.

Unlike the U.K, Guatemala combines both its fireman and its ambulance services into a combined "Bomberos". If that wasn't enough it relies heavily on volunteers and donations in order to run "effectively". One such volunteer is Archie who works by day as a sales manager and by night saves lives in the "red zone", the most dangerous part of the capital. He takes all the carnage in his stride with a smile and a shrug.

Angie stays with him for a week and what is noticeable are the precautions he goes through on a day to day basis. Archie is only able to volunteer as he comes from a rich family and therefore can afford to live in a high-security gated community (two electric gates, razor wire and armed guards 24-7). To go to the shops his wife has to remove all her jewellery else risk getting mugged. She says:

"it becomes routine like brushing your teeth or putting on your clothes"

Guatemala City's main problem are the drug gangs called Maras who extort and intimidate vast sections of the city effectively turning them into no-go areas. Angie is called out to treat a group of students who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite her valiant efforts two of them, both unconnected to the gangs, die as a result of their gunshots. The paramedics tell Angie that the incident is likely to be a gang initiation where new members are made to kill random strangers in order to prove their macho credentials.

Angie then attends a shooting where a young man has been dragged off a bus in broad daylight and riddled with bullets. Despite the many witnesses it is unlikely that the purpetrators will be caught as only 5% of murders reach conviction.

For the second week Angie stays with a full time paramedic, softly spoken family man Wilfredo, in a poor suburb 20 mins out of the centre. Whilst it looks pleasant enough during the day with kids running through the farmers markets at night the locals have set up their own vigilante police force that patrols the street in order to keep marauding gangs at bay.

On top of that Wilfredo has to play russian roulette as he is at daily risk of being robbed and killed by hijackers who pillage the buses on his commute to work. To show this isn't some amorphous threat Angie attends a bus shooting on her final day.

When asked why he does his dangerous job for a meagre £250 a month he says:

"The greatest reward for me is to wake up alive"

It certainly puts some perspective on what a comparitively easy life us Brits enjoy. Take a second to reflect on that the next time you complain that you can't get a free latte from the office vending machine.

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