The coastal province of Escuintla has become Guatemala's most violent, as criminal groups battle for control over this strategic territory, which includes an important port, access to the capital and an infamous prison.
Escuintla, a southern province on the Pacific coast, had 565 homicides recorded as of the end of October, giving it a homicide rate of 77 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest in the country, reported Prensa Libre. According to statistics collected by the National Institute for Forensic Sciences (INACIF), the province's 2013 homicide total has already passed the 2012 total of 553. If violence continues at the current rate, Escuintla is on track to end the year with a homicide rate of 93 per 100,000 residents. Overall Guatemala's homicide rate was 34 per 100,000 people in 2012.
According to Escuintla's chief investigator, Jorge Cuja, homicides and extortion are the department's two most commonly reported crimes. The province currently has 17 investigators and 1,027 police officers serving a population of more than 731,300 inhabitants. (See breakdown in Prensa Libre's graphic below)
(Courtesy of Prensa Libre)
InSight Crime Analysis
The rise in homicides in Escuintla reflects the overall increase in homicides across Guatemala in 2013. What's more, Escuintla has historically been one of the country's most violent provinces, and the uptick in violent crime highlights its importance among Guatemala's fragmented organized crime structures.
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Escuintla's location, with ports on the Pacific coast and proximity to the capital of Guatemala City, as well as its pre-existing infrastructure as a production and export center responsible for over 40 percent of the country's GDP, makes the province an ideal base for trafficking groups. Both the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel have used Escuintla as a transit point for drugs moving north into Mexico.
In addition to the presence of transnational groups, the province has its own homegrown criminal organizations, including the so-called Sarceño organization and the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Escuintla is home to the infamous "El Infiernito" maximum-security prison, from which inmates have directed extortion rings targeting hotels in El Salvador and even ordered the assassination of the prison director in July 2012. Despite ongoing government pledges to improve security in the province, understaffed police have struggled to combat the powerful groups operating there.
Since the fall of the Zetas in Guatemala, the province has been the site of infighting between different groups vying for control of the valuable Pacific territory and trafficking routes.