With a history of dictatorship, military violence, and civil war from the 1960’s onward, Guatemala’s security situation remains complex, with a police force that is untrusted by much of the population, and sophisticated organized crime networks. Although the 1985 constitution ended the rule of an overtly authoritarian government and established the state’s main duty to be the protection of the individual, the state police (PNC) is underfunded, and until 2016 relied upon the military for support. As a result, the police are largely unable to provide consistent service across the entirety of the country, leading many Guatemalans to rely on alternate non-state security providers.
Guatemala has an abundance of private security companies (outnumbering state police by nearly 3 to 1) that businesses and individuals hire for protection against violent gangs. Many of these companies are led by former military officers, and, although they are generally considered reputable, there have been allegations of such companies permitting crimes to perpetuate their business. Gangs in Guatemala may also be considered to provide security, although this is frequently imposed through an extortion system known as ‘renta’, in which payment is demanded of civilians in order to avoid being attacked (either from the gang demanding payment, or a rival gang). In some regions of Guatemala with larger indigenous populations, traditional forms of local governance are followed, with police being held accountable to these structures. Informal justice providers include religious leaders, indigenous leaders, local elders, and, in instances where police are absent or overpowered, through violent ‘mob justice’. To learn more about indigenous institutions and their role in security provision in Guatemala, watch our Digital story:
Overall, the population of Guatemala faces high levels of poverty and social inequality that has resulted in mass migrations into Guatemala City from rural areas, as well as immigration out of the country. Guatemala has some of the lowest levels of literacy, education, and employment in Latin America, particularly among the most vulnerable groups in society (such as youth, women, and indigenous groups). There are also high levels of discrimination within the country based around ethnic and socioeconomic differences. Insecurity varies between urban and rural regions of the country, as land- and homeowners in rural areas risk being deprived of vital resources or even being forced off their own land by more powerful actors.
However, undoubtedly the greatest threat to the security of Guatemala’s population is in the form of crime that affects physical security, with homicide and femicide being all too common – although it is worth noting that homicidal violence has been reduced by 50% over the past decade. Theft is a common occurrence in urban areas and is often carried out through violence or intimidation in high traffic areas. Women face frequent sexual harassment, assault, groping in public and domestic violence, while youth may be targeted by gangs for recruitment purposes, bullied verbally and physically by their peers, and may resort to drug abuse. Although rural areas tend to be less subject to violent theft, issues such as domestic abuse and alcoholism are elevated in these regions.
In 2014, Guatemala established the Community Security Police Model (MOPSIC), which was designed to promote a community policing philosophy among the police, improving police services and building trust with communities. Developed with support from the US Department of State (among other international agencies), MOPSIC was well-established within Guatemala by 2017, but continues to face barriers to its success. Among these are a general lack of clarity on the fundamental concepts of COP, and the belief that COP is either a burdensome central level initiative imposed upon police sub-stations, or that it represents a specific project rather than a general philosophy meant to permeate through all police activity. Other factors hindering the development of a COP culture include physical security issues and a lack of trust in the police. While police have had some success connecting with communities through “door to door” interactions, these types of outreach are more complicated in urban areas, where there is a possibility of dangerous encounters with street gang members. Still, officers continue to be trained in MOPSIC principles, and stationed throughout Guatemala.
MOPSIC explicitly calls for the incorporation of information and communications technologies (ICT) into COP, and proposes a number of possible applications, such as using geo-referencing to promote security through a map of crime hotspots or improving accountability through enhanced police agent reporting. However, many of these programs have barely been established, due to a lack of internet access, ineffective organization, and internal opposition. Currently, the most common use of ICT to promote communication between police and community members is through cell phones, as police will often share their personal phone numbers with community members as a means of offering direct contact.