Where Security Guards Outnumber (and Sometimes Outgun) the Police

In Guatemala private security guards are ubiquitous. They can be seen patrolling supermarkets, malls, office buildings, parking garages, restaurants, churches, factories, gas stations, taxi stands, and city buses. Even McDonald’s has heavily armed guards roaming their parking lots. Many of the private security guards wear military style fatigues and carry Uzis or pistol-grip shotguns (amazingly, most municipal transit police officers, such as the PMT of Mixco and PMT of San Lucas, do not carry guns). At times it is hard to tell them apart from soldiers or police officers. I once went to Banco de los Trabajadores in Los Proceres shopping mall in Guatemala City and there were as many security guards as bank tellers. The bank was a small branch and had six guards dressed in fatigues and wearing bullet proof vests. They looked as if they were ready to go to war. This is understandable, as bank robberies are common in Guatemala. I remember every few months the daily newspaper Al Dia would run a cover article with a graphic picture of the latest bank robbery’s bloody aftermath.

Photo: A security guard working for the Grupo Golan security company in Antigua, Guatemala.

With the crime situation in Guatemala being as bad as it is, the private security business has been booming for a decade. It’s estimated that there are up to 150,000 private security guards in Guatemala. They vastly outnumber the police, at just 25,000.
This has become a trend in countries that are reeling from high crime rates. In South Africa, there are an estimated 400,000 private security guards working for over 9,000 security companies. This is more than the total number of police and soldiers in the entire country. As in Guatemala, they are extremely well armed and many look as if they are members of elite military units. Some of them are even trained by their companies in military tactics. There are also South African security companies that have helicopters and armored personnel carriers and resemble small armies.

In Guatemala, relying on private security can be problematic. Private guards are low paid and many lack any significant training, even though they carry heavy weaponry. Unfortunately, the entire industry is unchecked for the most part. Because of this, the government created the Private Security Services Department (DIGESSP) in 2010 and passed a law that required security companies to be registered with the new agency. Companies would be listed in a database and be subjected to checks and balances. Security companies were given had two years to comply, but only 140 have registered so far. Hundreds more are still operating without government oversight.

Anna-Claire Bevan has been covering the private security industry in Guatemala. Two of her articles can be read below.

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