The growing number of private security firms in Guatemala speaks to the state's inability to provide protection for its citizens, but this booming industry is vulnerable to criminal co-option and could generate security concerns of its own.
Guatemala now has over 200 private security firms and 150,000 security guards -- five times more than the country’s 30,000-strong police force, according to the BBC. Less than 100 of the firms are legally registered.
These private services have flourished in the country as a result of public distrust in state institutions such as the police, security expert for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Adriana Beltran told the BBC. Heads of private security companies say the demand for these services continues to grow.
Businesses and individuals pay fees of $545 a month to keep a security guard on site, and $1,500 a month for personal bodyguards. Seguridad Integral, a private security firm founded in 1990, charges up to $26,000 to provide security at events. Other services include hiring patrol cars to accompany product deliveries at a price of $2 per kilometer.
One security firm owner told the BBC that in the 1990s, his clients felt that the greatest threat to them was kidnapping. Security concerns have evolved with time, however, and recent years have seen a surge in extortion.
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With such high levels of insecurity in the region, private firms are seen as a preferable -- and in some cases, necessary -- option for those who can afford their services. But these security enterprises can pose problems of their own, with many remaining unregulated and susceptible to infiltration by criminal groups.
Guatemala and its Central American neighbors are home to a fast-growing private security industry in response to some of the highest homicide rates in the world, widespread extortion and police forces seen as weak and corrupt. By some estimates, Honduras’ private security force of 90,000 is three times bigger than the national police and army combined. The number of police officers in El Salvador is also outstripped by the country's 24,100 private security guards.
Private security is also gaining popularity in Venezuela, which is suffering from shortages of basic goods as a result of a severe economic crisis. Police officers are increasingly becoming targeted by criminals, and see working in the private sector a safer and better-paying option.
The industry has nonetheless proven vulnerable to organized crime. Guatemalan firms have been marred by accusations of extrajudicial killings, collaborating with illegal groups linked to drug trafficking, and of being major buyers of illegal weapons. Security firms in El Salvador have been infiltrated by gang members, and some are known to directly supply or divert a large amount of weapons to criminals domestically and abroad in countries like Honduras and Brazil.
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The informal nature of this industry helps explain the relatively easy cross-over between the legal and the illegal. The majority of the security firms in Central America are unregistered, and Guatemalan government officials reported in 2014 that 99 percent of all security guards were operating without proper documentation.