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Private guards outnumber police 7 to 1. Most are untrained, uneducated and inexperienced.
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — A year ago, Domingo Castillo Yoc lived with three siblings and his parents in a rural village. A machete used on the family farm was the most dangerous weapon he had ever held.
Today, with a .38 special and bullets strapped to his hip, he stands guard in front of a small shipping business in a dodgy neighborhood in this dangerous city.
“The pay is a lot better here. There weren’t many jobs in my village,” said Yoc, 20, speaking in slow, clear Spanish, a language he learned in elementary school while speaking a Mayan dialect at home. “You can always find job as a security guard.”
Security guards employed by private companies here outnumber police seven-to-one. Throughout Latin America private security guard forces dwarf police rolls. Even the United States has more guards than police — 1.09 million to 883,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s about one guard for every 280 people.
In few places are the guards as prevalent as in Central America, named the most dangerous non-combat region in the world last year by the United Nations. Guatemala alone claims an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 guards — the exact number is not known because most guard companies are not registered or operate illegally. That’s about one guard for every 85 to 130 residents. The country has roughly 22,000 active police officers.
The government has no standards for minimum training, age or experience for guards. Roughly three-fourths come from rural, mostly poor areas where Spanish is the second language and few have better than a sixth-grade education.
Since the country's 36-year civil war ended in 1996, crime has worsened and police have failed to protect citizens. Residents and business owners call the guards a natural reaction to the rising crime rate. In the past 10 years, murders have grown by 145 percent to 6,498 killings in 2009, according to U.N. statistics.
GlobalPost found that the emergence of security guard companies actually predated — or at least ran concurrent with — the rise in violence, according to documents and interviews.
The civil war, which began in 1960 and pitted leftist guerrillas against the state, saw police officers target activists and suspected dissidents, who were often abducted and murdered. The military and death squads, meanwhile, terrorized indigenous Mayan communities. By 1996, 200,000 Guatemalans had been killed or disappeared, according to a U.N. truth commission.
The 1996 peace accords dismantled the police force and replaced it with a new entity, the National Civil Police. Although it has traditional policing duties, the force is undertrained, underpaid and, in many cases, corrupt. Earlier this month, the police chief and drug czar were arrested for alleged involvement in drug trafficking. It was the second time in two years the police chief had been removed under criminal allegations.
The end of the war also brought scores of multinational security companies to the country. A 2008 national police list of security companies obtained by GlobalPost under the Guatemalan equivalent of a freedom of information law, shows that before 1990, only 21 registered security companies existed. During the relatively calm 1990s — after war combed had died out and before street and violent crime began to spike — 56 companies set up operations. That led to the mushrooming of foreign and Guatemalan-owned companies, both legal and illegal, that continues today.
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.”