San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The rise of the private security industry in Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY – Israel Castillo came to Guatemala City when he was 23. For the past five years he has stood guard outside small supermarkets and malls in the Guatemalan capital brandishing a .38 revolver, 12 bullets and a truncheon.

Before moving to the often-dangerous capital city of 1 million people, Castillo had never held a firearm; he harvested coffee and maize in his hometown of Jalapa, a mountainous region 175 kilometers to the east.

“I don’t really like living in the city,” he says. “I grew up in the countryside so am more used to that. But I had to come here; there is money to be made and you can always find work as a security guard. This way I can support my family better.”

Analysts estimate that up to 150,000 private security guards operate in Guatemala, outnumbering the country’s 25,000 police officers by at least four to one. Many earn minimum wage, carry dangerous weapons and often lack proper training – a lethal combination that at times threatens, rather than protects, the country’s citizens.  

According to the United Nations, Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America, and an average of 40 murders per week occur in its capital. In Guatemala City, entrances to fast food restaurants, hair salons and coffee shops are lined with armed guards – a reaction to the high crime rate that has prompted even the smallest businesses to seek extra protection. 

Many argue that crime is worse now than during the country’s bloody 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996 and claimed at least 200,000 lives. One explanation is the prevalence of deeply rooted drug trafficking cartels that have devastated Central America and stunted the region’s development. This, coupled with poverty and underdevelopment, has allowed criminal gangs to spread, violence to intensify and corruption to penetrate at the highest levels of government and society.

Wealthy residents and members of the business elite say that in a country where kidnapping, carjacking and extortion are common, private security companies can offer the protection that police cannot. Those who can afford to take personal safety into their own hands, hiring bodyguards and chauffeurs who navigate the city in bulletproof vehicles.

The gates of the country’s top private schools swarm with bodyguards waiting to escort employers’ children back home to gated communities. Inside the city’s lavish malls, men in dark suits follow families as they shop, eyeing passersby and chatting to invisible colleagues through Bluetooth headsets.

The majority of Guatemalans living below the poverty line are concentrated in rural, indigenous areas, where access to education and jobs are limited. Few private security companies require employees to have prior experience or a high level of schooling, so many unemployed migrants from rural areas flock to the capital to take the jobs.

“Private security has become a labor option for a large section of society – namely displaced agricultural laborers,” said Otto Argueta, a researcher at the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies. “It works like an ‘arms sweat-shop,’ offering low wages, evading taxes and labor responsibilities, and contracting casual staff that lack qualifications.”

In 2010, in an effort to reign in the largely unchecked industry, a new law was passed requiring all private security companies to be licensed with the government. Companies had two years to comply.

Officials also established the Private Security Services Department (DIGESSP) to process license applications and create a database of all private security guards working in the country. That will help officials better monitor companies and ensure all weapons are legally registered.

“The companies and people who are [operating] outside of the law must be controlled, in accordance with Article 66 [of the new law],” DIGESSP’s Donald González said. “The important thing is to make them comply with the law.”

According to DIGESSP, unauthorized security companies or unlicensed guards could face up to 12 years in prison and a fine of Q100,000 ($12,650).

But a year after the application process ended, only 140 companies have been licensed, and a total of zero companies and individuals have been sanctioned under the new law.

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