On the outskirts of Guatemala City lie impoverished neighborhoods, home to millions who commute to work in the capital city. These so-called “dorm cities,” long neglected by the state and lacking in basic services, have turned into violent gang recruitment grounds over the years. But efforts by municipalities that combine both policing and prevention strategies show promising signs of helping reduce the presence of gangs and their extortion activities.
Sitting on a faux-leather sofa in his large office next to a wall of television screens showing live local security footage, Neto Bran isn’t your average municipal mayor. In his late thirties and in charge of the sprawling, violent Mixco municipality, he is wearing hair-gel and has his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, exposing a silvery rosary hanging from his neck.
The mayor of Guatemala’s second most populous city recounted to InSight Crime how he went into battle with extortionists, covered by El Salvador’s media, since his 2016 election, amid the spiking killings of bus drivers.
*This article is part of an investigation on state and community responses to extortion in Central America and was carried out by InSight Crime as a joint project with the Global Initiative. See the rest of the series here.
“We started seeing a killing a day [but] the mayor doesn’t have much to do with security, he doesn’t have armed forces,” Bran said, pointing to the necessary intervention of the national police (PNC).
“So I went to a stop where a bus had been shot at and said, ‘I’m not moving until the competent authorities act’.”
This stunt in March 2016 was Neto Bran’s first in a series that included driving a minibus on a route that had shut down because of extortion, and basing himself at a desk in the middle of Mixco’s central market.
“Obviously, when the media learned that the Mixco mayor was sitting in a market waiting for extortionists, the military and the national police sent men down to Mixco, because it would’ve looked really awful if something bad had happened.
“I was there for a month with all the security, so the extortionists probably decided it was best to go somewhere else, because not a queztal was paid here,” the mayor assured.
“It caused trouble between gang members … because we weren’t letting payments go through … so they came and left corpses … decapitated people in front of my office and my house.”
These stunts were certainly more publicity stunts than long term anti-extortion efforts, but they highlighted the magnitude of the issue in the municipality.
They also preceded a more comprehensive strategy based around the development of an armed unit within the municipal police deployed to Mixco’s most sensitive neighborhoods, alongside violence prevention programs. This same strategy seems to be bearing fruit in Villa Nueva, the other major municipality bordering the capital city.
Dorm Cities, the Gangs’ Perfect Recruitment Ground
By local authorities’ own admission, both Mixco and Villa Nueva were long neglected by the state. Combined with the low-income background of many households, a feeble state presence and a lack of basic social services, these zones provided fertile ground for street gangs to take root and grow in certain neighborhoods dubbed “red zones.”
These areas are hotbeds of the extortion and micro trafficking activities that make up the gangs’ bread and butter.
“Just to give you an idea, about ten years ago, the gang that was operating in Villa Nueva … was grossing over $3 million a year from extortion only in the central market,” claimed Edwin Escobar, mayor of Villa Nueva since 2012.
Although the figure appears strikingly high — Guatemalan police estimated that extortion throughout the whole municipality generated $4 million in 2007 — Villa Nueva undoubtedly remains an extortion hotspot. In 2015, it held the fourth highest municipal number of extortion complaints in all of Guatemala. Mixco held the second.
These red zones are also key recruitment pools, according to Stu Velasco, a former police deputy director of criminal investigations.
“We realized that there was a geographic area in Zone 12 [of Villa Nueva] from which a high percentage of gang leaders and lower members came,” Velasco said.
“The youth we captured were born or lived in these areas … that show socio-economic characteristics, including poverty or extreme poverty and disrupted family households.”
Juan Alberto Sánchez, the current security coordinator for Villa Nueva’s municipal police and the former chief of Mixco’s traffic police, agreed that both areas had similar weaknesses on which gangs prey. The municipal police officer argued that even the topography of many Mixco and Villa Nueva neighborhoods are favorable to gangs and can obfuscate police.
Sánchez also explained that Villa Nueva’s demographic was shaped over the decades by the arrival of waves of Guatemalan seeking work opportunity in the capital or fleeing following natural disasters. These migration flows and the daily departure of vast pans of the population to work in the capital limited the development of strong community ties.
“There is a lack of a feeling of belonging within the community,” Sánchez explained.
As the gangs grew, so did homicides in these areas. And despite a decrease in killings in recent years, Mixco and Villa Nueva continue to suffer from the violent reputation of some of their neighborhoods: some job offers explicitly bar Mixco and Villa Nueva residents from applying for fear of gang infiltration, further limiting youths’ dim economic opportunities and facilitating the gangs’ recruitment work.
The Colombian Model: Policing and Prevention
Starting with Villa Nueva from 2012 and then Mixco from 2016, both municipalities looked toward Medellín and Bogotá’s urban security success stories and launched a comprehensive strategy involving policing action and prevention work.
In an attempt to weigh more on public security, the municipalities developed within their respective local police forces an armed unit tasked with similar missions to the PNC’s. In contrast, Guatemalan municipal police force have traditionally been charged with protecting buildings and controlling traffic.
Both municipalities also invested in initiatives meant to prevent violence and undermine gang recruitment, including educational programs on weekends or recreational spaces such as parks, open-air gyms and sports clubs. Villa Nueva has also created a special municipal office in charge of shouldering unemployed youth and reaching out to the private sector, even vouching for candidates from gang-controlled territories.
The programs’ objective was two-fold. First, every moment young people spent in recreational environments was time away from the streets and attempts to be recruited into gangs. All actors consulted by InSight Crime, whether private or official, concurred that focusing on youth was key to prevent the “generational replacement” of gang members.
“This points to three important aspects,” Mixco Mayor Neto Bran said. “Prevention, protection for young people, and protection for women.”
Second, efforts to clean up and retake control of public space were supposed to impact perceptions of insecurity.
“If you feel safe because you see other people being safe as they walk in a space you previously perceived to be dangerous, your perception changes,” Villa Nueva Mayor Escobar told InSight Crime.
“In the end, it’s 95 percent perception, and 5 percent reality,” Escobar insisted, describing the cocktail to reducing insecurity as one-third policing, one-third prevention, and one-third municipal governance, which covers recovering public spaces.
Local Actors, a Key Part of the Solution
Municipal authorities are aware of their limited capacity. Mixco has a population of around 1 million people and a budget of 400 million quetzals, of which only 5 million (less than $700,000) go to the municipal police force, according to Bran. The mayor admits that prevention programs rely heavily on foreign aid.
Villa Nueva doesn’t fare much better. “I have a $40 million [municipal] budget for 1.5 million people, it’s ridiculous,” Escobar told InSight Crime.
Due to their limited capacity, local actors insist that the work of national authorities is crucial.
“We’re not here to compete with the PNC,” Sánchez said. “It’s counterproductive, what we want is to support their work.”
Their proximity and ties with the community mean that local actors can achieve a level of outreach and impact which complements the PNC’s work, including maintaining ties and communication channels with gang members. This can ensure that the gangs do not target municipal prevention programs, for instance, despite the risk they pose to long-term gang recruitment.
“Why aren’t we under direct threat? Because some of them have kids; the majority have younger brothers; they have parents, and all of these projects are for them to enjoy.” Sánchez said.
A Barrio 18 member once told Sánchez that the gang wouldn’t interfere with prevention programs, even those openly aimed at undercutting recruitment, so long as these programs were carried out with children and teenagers outside of the gang. If the programs started targeting youth that were already in the structure, then things would end badly, Sánchez was warned.
This ongoing type of community work can offer municipal police a very distinct perspective on the gang issue than the one commonly adopted by national security forces throughout the Northern Triangle, which have generally tried to alienate gang members from the community and the society. Part of Sánchez’ work, for instance, consists in reaching out and coordinating with local neighborhood committees (Consejos Comunitarios de Desarrollo Urbano y Rural – COCODES). And more often than not, these are integrated by relatives of gang members.
“My objective isn’t to rid the community of the gang,” Sánchez made clear. “The gang is an inextricable part of the community. My objective is to get the gang to commit less criminal acts.”
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