Thursday, August 20, 2009

Guatemala: affected by violent crime and impunity. Is this a never ending tunnel?

I am writing this post from the Dubai Airport lounge while I am waiting for my connection flight to New York. Just concluded a three months security mission in Sri Lanka where I was in charge of the security of staff, assets and operations of in international organization in the North of the country. I will write soon a post about the challenging security situation in the island. In the meantime, I believe it would be logic continue with the Latin American “chapter” i.e. my security experience in Centro/Latin America in order to give more uniformity to the structure of this blog.
I conducted my RSA in Guatemala in February 2008, visited Guatemala City and the field office located in Jocotan/Los Amates. In that period an interesting debate around the best method (if ever any) to reduce/eliminate the impunity was taking place. Such discussion, both intellectual and political, was stimulated by creation of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG, its Spanish acronym). The United Nations in fact in December 2006 signed an agreement with the Guatemalan Government to set up an independent commission, to investigate illegal armed groups that have been operating in the Central American country with impunity and to help justice officials carry out criminal prosecutions against them. In February 2007, three Salvadoran parliamentarians and their driver were assassinated by senior members of the Guatemalan National Civilian Police, including the head of the organized crime unit. Four of those police officers were themselves subsequently killed while in a high security Guatemalan jail. The incident has demonstrated the extent to which illegal security organizations have infiltrated high levels of state institutions in Guatemala.
The Commission should be able to conduct its own investigations and also help local institutions, particularly the Office of the Public Prosecutor. According with the UN official press report “The Commission currently had about 20 ongoing investigations and had proceeded to criminal prosecution in four cases... One of those involved the massacre of 12 persons and related to the rivalry between organized groups; another case dealt with police corruption and concerned groups that kidnapped children”. Reality is that corruption and impunity are still dramatically affecting Guatemala and its neighbouring countries and the above Commission has noble intention but scarce power.

Author assessing flour mill security measures at Los Amates.

Violent criminal activity continues to be a problem in Guatemala, including murder, rape, and armed assaults against foreigners. The police force is inexperienced and under-funded, and the judicial system is weak, overworked, and inefficient. Well-armed criminals know there is little chance they will be caught or punished. Traditionally, Guatemala experiences increases in crime before and during the Christmas and Easter holiday seasons.
Large demonstrations occur throughout Guatemala, often with little or no notice, and can cause serious traffic disruptions. Although most demonstrations are peaceful, they can turn violent, and travellers should avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place. The use of roadblocks and/or blocking of public facilities, including the international airport, has increased and demonstrators may prevent tourists caught behind the blockades from leaving.

Poster relating human being trafficking with impunity.
In 2007 particularly virulent rumours of child stealing and of murder for organ harvesting have been reported in several different areas of Guatemala frequented by foreigners. During my visit in the country numerous Guatemalan citizens have been lynched for suspicion of child stealing, and three local women who allegedly facilitated foreign adoptions were attacked by a mob that accused them of kidnapping and killing a girl whose mutilated remains were found near Camotan, Chiquimula (near the Honduran border on the main road leading to the Copan Mayan ruins). In reaction to unconfirmed reports of babies being kidnapped in the El Golfete area of the Rio Dulce (near Livingston, Izabal), residents of small villages in the area remain mobilized and suspicious of all outsiders, including foreigners. I passed by there areas. Talking with the people I perceived an overall distress and a total lack of confidence in the Police and the institutions in general. In Sayaxche, Petén, child stealing rumours escalated into mob action against a Guatemalan couple believed to be involved in child stealing. Mobs have also targeted police, resulting in delayed or ineffective responses by law enforcement.
Due to uncontrolled drug and alien smuggling, the Guatemalan border with Mexico is a relatively high-risk area, in particular in the northern Petén Department. The most dangerous area in that region is on the north-western border in the area that includes the Sierra de Lacandon and Laguna del Tigre National Parks.
My concern was/is that the staff, above all the expatriates, could be targeted to send a clear message to the international community as such and to the UN to stop the investigations of the Commission against Impunity. No attacks have taken place so far but this remains a valid warning since general security situation has not changed. Violent crime, however, is a serious concern due to endemic poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence, and dysfunctional law enforcement and judicial systems.
The number of violent crimes officially reported has remained high in recent years. Incidents include, but are not limited to, assault, theft, armed robbery, carjacking, rape, kidnapping, and murder. Criminals often operate in groups of four or more and are confrontational and violent. Gangs are a growing concern in Guatemala City and rural Guatemala. Gang members are often well armed with sophisticated weaponry and they sometimes use massive amounts of force. Emboldened armed robbers have attacked vehicles on main roads in broad daylight. Travel on rural roads always increases the risk of a criminal roadblock or ambush. Widespread narcotics and alien smuggling activities can make remote areas especially dangerous. However, violent criminal activity on the highways continues, and foreigners, among others, have been targeted. Many of the robbery attempts have occurred in daylight hours on main highways. Carjacking incidents and highway robberies are often violent. Private vehicles, taxis and shuttle buses have been attacked. Typically, the assailants steal money, passports, and luggage. In some cases, assailants have been wearing full or partial police uniforms and have used vehicles that resemble police vehicles, indicating that some elements of the police might be involved. Travel after dark anywhere in Guatemala is extremely dangerous.
In conclusion, I would define as the most pernicious threats the virulent violent organized crime and the institutional failure to bring perpetrators of crimes to justice creating thus a denial attitude of the victims' right to justice and redress.
In the next post about Guatemala I will outline the external threat analysis, the organized criminal activities and the natural disaster risk (contingency plans) posed mainly by tropical hurricanes and volcanoes (22 out of which 4 active).
Photo on top: Courtesy


Peter (Worldman): said...

Generoso, I hope you are now back home ok. Look at my blog tomorrow. I am talking about being safe and WFP FSO's.

Risk Security Assessment Consulting said...

Thanks Peter for the nice comments on your blog. I am happy to receive them from an experienced and skilled international professional like you who have lived in different continents and had/has no fear to challenge himself.