San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Private security industry grows as organized crime spreads through Central America

By Juan José Rodríguez

PANAMA CITY – Rising crime rates caused by organized criminal groups in Central America, one of the world’s most violent regions, is causing an increase in the number of private security guards operating on the isthmus, primarily in the area known as the “northern triangle,” which includes El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Throughout the region, security analysts said, a lack of public security forces has led to a boost in the private security business.

According to recent statistics from the Pan-American Private Security Federation, more than 200,000 private security guards work in Central America, most of them performing their duties in informal jobs.

In the northern triangle, the concentration of private security services is a response to organized crime and violent street gangs, known as “maras” or “pandillas.”

“The northern triangle is an area that has severe security problems, and therefore, it has the most number of private security personnel,” Omar Garrido, a representative to Central America for the international security consulting firm Asis, told AFP.

Garrido estimated the actual number of private security personnel in the region at about 300,000, of which an estimated 200,000 operate in the northern triangle.

Growth of the region’s private security sector totals approximately 8 percent annually in an area that has the highest homicide rates in the world, according to the United Nations.

Honduras, with a homicide rate of 92 per 100,000 residents, is the most dangerous country not currently at war. El Salvador is next, with 69 homicides per 100,000, followed by Guatemala with 39.

According to the U.N., Mexico’s war on illegal drug cartels has forced organized criminal networks to spread to neighboring countries in the northern triangle, where they operate in an environment marked by poverty, youth unemployment and government corruption.

Rubén Fajardo, a security consultant, said that while “authorities focus more attention on organized crime, matters of ‘common’ or everyday crime are left unattended, and the private security sector increasingly is stepping in to provide protection.”

Fajardo, who participated this week in a private security industry forum held in Panama, said the sector has seen “enormous growth” in the past 15 years.

In Guatemala, the number of private security guards outnumber the country’s 24,000 police officers by four to one. In Honduras, there are twice as many private security guards as the country’s 29,000 police officers.

In Costa Rica, which has lower crime statistics than its Central American neighbors in the northern triangle, the number of private security guards also doubles the 13,000 public police officers.

Kidnappings, extortion and armed robbery of cargo containers shipped via Central America’s highways are among the crimes that most worry the region’s business owners, who represent a large percentage of private security firms’ business.

“We have more customers because there is a greater movement of goods and people, and that raises the risks,” one Central American security business owner, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP. “Just as we speak of the globalization of the economy, we must also talk about the globalization of crime, which affects every facet of society.”

An estimated 14 cargo containers are stolen each week in Honduras, as well as 10 in Guatemala and eight in El Salvador, he said.

However, the majority of private security guards in the region are poorly paid and lack adequate training to confront organized criminal elements. In many cases, private security guards also commit crimes or are paid off by drug traffickers, experts said.

“If drug traffickers are able to buy police chiefs, why wouldn’t they be able to hire other people with less power?” said Ernesto Alvarado, president of Asis in Panama.

“Temptation will always be there,” Garrido said, adding that private security guards should be paid “sufficiently so that there is no temptation to commit a crime.”

Fajardo also said that private security companies are sometimes used to launder money in Central America, although he stressed that most are legitimate companies.

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