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Private guards outnumber police 7 to 1. Most are untrained, uneducated and inexperienced.
It’s a common tale. While Latin American countries “tried to establish democracies, you started seeing concerns over the new government’s ability to maintain security,” said Mark Ungar, a professor of criminal justice and political science at Brooklyn College who has studied the effect of the security forces. “And the emergence of these companies is rooted in that.”
U.S. security giant g4s, previously known as Wackenhut Corp., employs more guards than any other company in Guatemala. It registered with the government in 1980 and today employs about 5,300 guards that it outsources to clients.
Max Heurtematte, regional vice president for the company, said problems have arisen because the government has no control over the system. The government needs to make sure “that the guards speak Spanish, by giving a basic language test … and that they are mature enough to handle the responsibility. For that, we need a basic psychological evaluation,” Heurtematte said. The company provides 50 hours of training to new employees, half dedicated to firearms training.
The government is creating a program to oversee the security firms, according to records. A police spokesman declined to discuss the new initiative, but a Nov. 26, 2009, letter from the Interior Ministry said the police have been ordered to “implement a plan to supervise and monitor, at a national level, all private security companies.”
Such a plan would include identifying which companies are legal and registering the guns and equipment they use.
Currently even security companies registered with the government are not required to put their employees through a criminal background check. Using unregistered guns, guards are sometimes involved in shootouts.
In one recent case, a 50-year-old security guard was arrested after he shot and killed an unarmed 20-year-old man in a shopping center. The victim appeared to be drunk, witnesses said. In another, a 17-year-old guard shot and killed an unarmed 15-year-old, police said. The guard was working illegally. Last year, police seized nearly 100 illegal guns from guards, according to records.
Poorly paid — normally at the minimum wage of $2,750 a year, or sometimes less — some guards also turn to crime. In January, five guards were arrested for their alleged involvement in the murder of the owners of a factory the guards were supposed to be protecting.
“This is one of the biggest security problems in the country,” said Raul Monzon, a deputy in the government’s human rights office. “Little training exists, they don’t know how to use a gun and they are everywhere.”
The guards are twice as likely to be killed than the average citizen. Last year, 107 security guards and bodyguards were killed, according to statistics from human rights groups.
The guards and the guns they wield — pump action shotguns and old revolvers — mark the front doors of businesses and the guard gates of wealthy neighborhoods. They have become accepted members of a culture numb to crime.
“Can you imagine walking into a Guatemala City shopping mall and not seeing a guard? People wouldn’t know what to do,” Ungar said. “Guards have become a social phenomenon. They are part of the fabric of urban life.”