Have gun, will travel: The rise of Guatemala's private security industry
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Have gun, will travel: The rise of Guatemala's private security industry

Israel Castillo came to Guatemala City when he was 23 years old. For more than five years he has stood on guard outside small supermarkets and malls in the Guatemalan capital, brandishing a .38 revolver, 12 bullets and a billy club. Before moving to the capital, Castillo had never even held a firearm — he harvested coffee and maize in his native Jalapa, a mountainous region 175 km from where he now stands.

“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.”

Castillo is just one of thousands employed by the private security industry, which has exploded in Guatemala over the past decade. According to research by Dr. Otto Argueta, an investigator at the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies in Germany, in 1990 there were around 75 private security companies operating in the small Central American nation. By 2010, this number had quadrupled.

Although exact statistics are unknown, security analysts estimate there are between 100,000 and 150,000 private security agents working in Guatemala, outnumbering the country’s 30,000 police officers by almost four to one.

Many of these security guards 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.

More crime, more security guards

According to the United Nations, Guatemala has one of the highest levels of violent crime in Latin America, reporting an average of 99.5 murders a week in 2012. In Guatemala City, entrances to fast food restaurants, hair salons and coffee shops are lined with armed guards – a reaction to a crime rate so high that even the smallest of businesses seek extra protection.

Many argue that crime is worse now than it was during the bloody civil war that ended in 1996, leaving 200,000 people dead and displacing an estimated 50,000. One explanation for the spiking crime rate is the rising influence of drug trafficking cartels that have infiltrated Central American society and stunted the region’s development, allowing criminal gangs to grow, violence to intensify and corruption to penetrate at the highest level.

Decision Ejecutiva is a private security company with approximately 500 employees that has been operating in Guatemala since 1996. They offer clients everything from patrol cars to night watchmen and even personal courses on how to fire a gun.

“Ten years ago security was not as necessary in Guatemala as it is now,” says the company’s Director-General, Ohad Steinhart. “But as a result of the need that has been manifesting in the country, our business and services have grown.”

Wealthy residents and the business elite say that, in a country where mugging, carjacking and extortion are rife, private security companies can offer protection that the police cannot. So they take personal safety into their own hands: hiring bodyguards and chauffeurs to drive them around the city in bulletproof vehicles. At the end of the school day, the gates of top private schools swarm with bodyguards waiting to escort their employers’ children back to their gated communities. Inside the city’s lavish malls, men in dark suits follow families around, eyeing passersby and muttering about potential threats to invisible colleagues through their Bluetooth headsets.

An “arms sweatshop”

The majority of people living below the poverty line in Guatemala are concentrated in rural, majority-indigenous areas where access to education and jobs are limited. Because few private security companies require their employees to have prior experience or a high level of schooling, many unemployed people from the rural areas flock to the capital to seek work as a security guard, allowing them to earn a salary without the need for credentials.

“Private security has become a labor option for a large section of society – namely displaced agricultural laborers,” says Dr. Argueta, the German researcher. “It works like an ‘arms sweatshop’: offering low wages, evading taxes and labor responsibilities, and contracting casual staff that lack qualifications.”

In 2010, in an effort to reign in the industry, the government passed a law requiring all private security companies to obtain a license in order to operate in the country, and gave them two years to do it. The Private Security Services Department (DIGESSP) was established to create a database of all private security agents working in the country, with the aim of monitoring companies and ensuring all the weapons they use are registered.

“It’s been a big challenge and I applaud the work,” said Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla in a recent DIGESSP statement. “We’re working hand in hand with the security companies to be able to help them comply with the law and certify their services.”

However, two years after the closing date for applications, only 15 of the hundreds of security companies in Guatemala have obtained the official license, while most continue to operate with little or no oversight.