San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Guatemala looks to Colombia’s success to overhaul police force

GUATEMALA CITY – The Guatemalan government is revamping the country’s police force in a bid to increase safety levels in the country. Over the next couple of years, it plans to recruit 10,000 more officers and spend $30 million on arming them with weapons. The increase will bring the total number of police officers in the Central American nation to 35,000 – one agent for every 400 citizens.

Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. According to the United Nations, in 2011 the country’s homicide rate was 38.5 people per 100,000. Most European countries have a rate of 1.

In the past, Guatemala’s police force has been described as underfunded, poorly trained and often outgunned. The recent changes mean that all officers will have access to firearms, as well as the authority to use them. Previous weapons shortages meant that officers were often unwilling to confront armed criminals.

In the absence of public security by the state, Guatemala’s private security industry has grown at exponential rates. Analysts estimate that up to 150,000 private security guards operate in Guatemala, outnumbering the country’s current number of police officers – 25,000 – 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.  

In an effort to improve policing, police uniforms have been changed, patrol cars have been equipped with new satellite tracking systems and two new police academies have been opened.

The reforms are being modeled on Colombia’s police force after its government implemented various changes that are believed to have contributed to significant reduction of crime in the South American country.

“The changes are taking place to improve and dignify the work of the police. It will put them at the forefront and help them do their jobs better,” said Jorge Aguilar Chinchilla, police inspector and a police spokesman.

Included in the recently installed technology are strategically positioned cameras that capture license plate numbers and send signals to police to alert them of stolen vehicles.

“All police officers used to be trained in Zone 6 [in Guatemala City], but now there’s an academy in Huehuetenango and another in Santa Rosa,” Aguilar said.

“The same thing is happening with the police networks: Workshops were all held here in the capital, but now each regional precinct has their own workshops, their own supplies and they don’t have to travel to [the capital] to repair a unit. It’s a decentralization procedure that has sped up the process for a lot of Guatemalans,” he added.

It is hoped that these changes will help install more trust in the police and strengthen justice and law enforcement in the Central American country – preventing it from becoming a haven for criminals.

However, many Guatemalans believe that arming officers with more weapons could make the situation worse. A recent report by the National Economic Research Center found that Guatemala’s firearm homicide rate is almost twice the global average, with 82 percent of homicides linked to firearms. A surplus of weapons could lead to an increase in the number of illegal arms circulating in the country, which could fall into the hands of gang members, critics say.

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