Gangs using violence and fraud are driving an exponential increase in the theft of properties in Guatemala, demonstrating a level of sophistication that goes far beyond street gangs seizing homes and businesses with threats and intimidation.
Guatemala has recorded 1,400 cases of property theft so far in 2013, 400 more than last year's total, reported Siglo 21.
Criminals use various strategies to illegally take possession of properties, including falsified signatures, invalid contracts, unauthorized notarizations and fake identity cards, reported Emisoras Unidas.
According to the head of the country's General Property Registry, Anabella de Leon, they also use violence, with four organized crime groups believed to be behind 114 murders linked to property theft. According to De Leon, the most common victims are citizens living in other countries, the elderly, and people who own property in dangerous areas.
So far this year, nine individuals have been arrested with false paperwork while inside illegally obtained properties.
Two years ago, Guatemala's government established the General Property Registry which provides owners with greater safeguards, including a biometric immobilization service, to prevent property theft. However, according to De Leon, only 5,000 of the country's registered five million properties have taken up the service, leaving the vast majority less protected.
InSight Crime Analysis
Appropriating property is a common strategy for criminals across the region, especially among street gangs, which force people from their homes then use the buildings for everything from lookout points to stash houses. In Colombia, it has even become common for gangs to act as what Colombian conflict analyst Fernando Quijano calls a "criminal estate agency" -- selling or renting the properties, often to friends, family and allies.
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However, the Guatemala property theft described by De Leon takes this a step further by making these thefts appear legal through fraud and falsification of ownership documents.
While De Leon did not mention the issue, given the levels of corruption in state institutions, which help criminals with everything from obtaining false passports to legalizing stolen cars, it seems likely that these criminals would also seek out corrupt contacts to help them in this endeavor.