Authorities in Guatemala fear that self-defense groups operating in response to a lack of state presence may turn into criminal organizations engaged in illicit activities, a dynamic authorities throughout the region have confronted.
The presence of a so-called self-defense group wielding high-powered weapons in the city of Villa Nueva, just south of the capital Guatemala City, has authorities on high alert for fear that they may become criminalized, Prensa Libre reported.
Fieldwork conducted by InSight Crime in Guatemala showed that authorities worry such groups may take on criminal markets and lives of their own as has been seen in other examples around the region.
The group, which has allegedly been organizing for the last 11 years, reportedly armed themselves and took to patrolling the streets after gang members murdered two individuals on July 16, according to Prensa Libre.
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Members of the self-defense group admit to carrying weapons, and they say that they are legally owned. They claim to not charge extortion fees to their fellow citizens in exchange for "protection," unlike the gangs in the area.
However, Guatemalan journalist Sofía Menchú told InSight Crime that under Guatemalan law, civilians cannot carry such high-powered weapons.
"There is a lack of state presence, but they [the self-defense groups] seem suspicious because they use 'long' weapons that are usually used by the army or police," she said.
Guatemala is consistently among Latin America’s most violent countries alongside it’s Northern Triangle neighbors El Salvador and Honduras. Specifically, Menchú told InSight Crime that Villa Nueva is a municipality with a "very strong criminal history." That, and the fact that there are many poor areas in Villa Nueva, Menchú says, is why "a large part of its youth population is involved in gangs."
InSight Crime Analysis
The presence of self-defense groups is a regional phenomenon throughout Latin America that other governments confronting serious security issues have had to face.
Authorities in El Salvador, for example, have struggled to establish a presence in and take back control of areas under the control of the country’s notoriously violent gangs. In response, self-defense groups have emerged to try and restore order. Officials have even considered arming these groups to help fight crime, while the groups themselves have advocated for legal recognition.
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However, these groups have at times morphed into more shadowy death squad-like groups that have been linked to extrajudicial killings of alleged gang members, underscoring the criminal risks that come with legitimizing such groups.
Authorities in Mexico have faced similar obstacles. Self-defense groups have surged across the country over the last decade amid an uptick in organized crime-related violence. But the government’s eventual recognition of such groups has had serious consequences. These groups have also been known to form links with organized crime groups and engaged in illicit criminal activities of their own.
Colombia has in the past also approved the creation of similar citizen security groups in an effort to reinforce the fight against crime and violence. But these groups had the opposite effect. Today they run shadowy criminal networks and charge residents for their “security” tax, further contributing to insecurity.
The presence of self-defense groups is a reminder that broader security problems have not yet been adequately addressed by authorities.