Widespread crime is the legacy of a long and bloody civil war
A Hollywood scriptwriter could hardly have done better. On a Friday morning in downtown Guatemala City, a bus had just left the main terminal when it stopped to pick up two young men waiting on a corner. Although they blended in easily among their fellow passengers, the pair were in fact members of the notorious Central American street gang M-18. Armed with handguns, they were about to stage a hold-up of the bus when they were pre-empted by rivals from another gang who had boarded earlier. An angry discussion ensued as to who had the right to rob the passengers, which quickly escalated into gunfire that left one gang-member dead and two passengers injured.
While stories such as these are the bread and butter of Guatemala's tabloid press, they also reinforce the widely held belief that violent crime is spiralling out of control in a country still haunted by the legacy of a long and bloody civil war. Despite government promises to promote greater respect for the rule of law, well connected criminals seem to have little difficulty evading arrest. Meanwhile, the country's chronically underfunded police force remains dogged by its reputation for corruption and ineptitude.
Fearful of becoming victims, yet skeptical of the police's ability to protect them, many Guatemalans are turning to the private sector for help in keeping criminals at bay. According to Oscar Chocón, owner of the Tropical Arms gun store in the Caribbean coastal city of Puerto Barrios, sales have risen sharply over the past year, with semi or fully automatic handguns being buyers' preferred choices. Although individuals have to obtain a licence before the purchase can be finalized, Chocón admits that corruption is a problem, and that customers intent on gun ownership often can bypass requirements like a clean police record or evidence of a steady job.
Equally worrisome in the view of Carmen Rosa De León, executive director of the Education for Sustainable Development Institute (IEPADES), a group at the forefront of efforts to reduce gun violence in Guatemalan society, existing licensing rules do not include any provisions for training in firearms safety or handling. So long as the necessary paperwork is completed, gun buyers can expect to receive a license, regardless of whether or not they know how to use their weapon. De León likens this lax attitude to giving driver's licenses to people who have never been behind the wheel, and then sending them on a drive through busy city streets.
With more than 20,000 new gun licenses issued between April 2002 and February 2003, when the most recent government firearms report was published, experts are concerned that those buying a gun for self-defence are placing themselves and their families are at an elevated risk of becoming victims of violence. In addition to the danger that a loaded gun will fall into the hands of a child, De León says that assailants are more likely to target armed individuals, either to rob them of their weapon or to shoot them before they have a chance to open fire themselves.
In the climate of insecurity currently gripping Guatemala, gun dealers are not the only ones profiting from people's fears. Private security firms are also enjoying rapid growth as homeowners and businesses scramble to safeguard their property. From condominium apartment buildings to soft drink delivery trucks, the presence of armed guards is seen as a vital deterrent against would-be thieves. Security firms have responded to the increased demand for their services by going on a hiring spree. According to De León, there are as many as 80,000 private security guards working in towns and cities throughout Guatemala.
However, despite employing four times as many officers as the country's police, the security industry's performance in protecting lives and property has often been lacklustre. Insufficient training and background checks are especially problematic, and have led to embarrassing incidents in which security officers have been caught moonlighting as armed robbers or turning a blind eye to criminal activity at sites they were supposed to be guarding. Another concern for groups like IEPADES is the source of security firms' weapons, which run the gamut from shotguns to assault rifles. With less than one legally registered firearm for every three officers working in the security industry, it is suspected that companies are filling their arsenals with cheap black market weapons smuggled into the country from El Salvador and Honduras.
The government, meanwhile, has given little indication that it intends to challenge the incipient privatization of its citizen safety responsibilities. Not only have the authorities failed to intercept any significant illegal arms shipments in the past 15 years, according to De León, but there have been no serious moves to regulate the security industry and enforce minimum standards of accountability.
At the same time, the UN Observer Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) has criticized the government for undermining the credibility and effectiveness of the country's civilian police force, created under the terms of the 1996 peace agreement with leftist rebels. Especially troubling for MINUGUA was the recent decision to cut the training period for new officers from 18 to 12 months, along with a budget squeeze so severe that half the force's squad cars are sitting idle because there is no money to make needed repairs.
Still, the news is not all bad. In Guatemala City, police officers have responded enthusiastically to an IEPADES initiative to give them specialized training in violence prevention. Devised by Brazilian educators with experience in some of Rio de Janeiro's most conflict-prone neighborhoods, the courses emphasize the importance of working with communities to reduce crime and get guns off the streets. According to De León, the project has received strong support from police chiefs in the capital, many of whom would like to implement more prevention-oriented approaches to policing, but lack the expertise necessary to do so.
With campaigning for the second round of the presidential election in full swing, and the winner not scheduled to take office until mid-January, it is unlikely the chiefs will receive any new funding in the immediate future. Instead, MINOGUA continues to document the government's preference for channeling resources to the military rather than the police. As for Alvaro Colom and Oscar Berger, the two remaining candidates in the race to succeed Alfonso Portillo as president, although both have promised to allocate more resources to the police they have remained silent on whether they intend to fulfill demilitarization commitments laid out in the peace accord. Meanwhile, ordinary Guatemalans are left to deal with their fear of violent crime as best they can. Unfortunately, the choice many are making to arm themselves is aggravating, not alleviating, the country's security problems.