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Guatemala - Introduction

Guatemala is Central Americas most populous country and its largest economy. But an intransigent elite, an ambitious military and a weak state has opened the way for organized crime to flourish, especially since the return of democracy. Insurgent groups fought with the state between 1960 and 1996 in a brutal civil war that left more than 200,000 dead and 70,000 disappeared. Guatemala returned to democracy in 1986, and ten years later signed the Peace Accords that ended 36 years of internal armed conflict.

Roughly 90 percent of cocaine consumed in the United States transits Guatemala, but only about 0.5 percent of that is seized during periods of heightened counternarcotics efforts. Drug trafficking funds political campaigns at both the local (mayors, deputies) and national (presidents, courts, legislators) levels. It also co-opts military officials located in strategic trafficking zones and police structures to the point of becoming an insecurity factor for drug traffickers themselves.

In recent history most of the region's political problems had less to do with political ideology than with a failure of governments to address income inequality and social inclusion issues. After almost 35 years of democracy Guatemala is still facing almost the same situation as before, or worse. The chronically under-funded state is weak but trying to contend with enormous social problems.

According to the World Bank, Guatemala has one of the most unequal income distributions in the hemisphere, and a poverty rate of 50%. Of the farm land, 80 percent is held by 3 percent of the farm families. Nine out of ten rural inhabitants lived on plots of land too small to support a family. Moreover, 25 percent of the rural families had no land at all.

In the case of Guatemala, inequality as measured by the Gini Index has changed little in recent decades. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the values for the index in Guatemala in 1989 and 2006 were 0.582 and 0.585, respectively. On the other hand, the quality of life in Guatemala as measured by the Human Development Index (HDI) has actually improved in recent decades, notwithstanding the fact that after Haiti, Guatemala remains the Latin American country with the worst result.

There are fewer than 100 families (often related through marriages) at the center of Guatemala's private sector. They have diversified sources of wealth in commerce, agriculture, industry, and finance, and they significantly influence if not dominate Guatemala's economy. With several hundred members, by the 1980s the families managed five banks, representing over 50 percent of the private banking system's assets. They owned some 100 of the most productive industrial firms and about 100 of the country's 3,000 coffee plantations, which usually accounted for 20 percent of the nation's coffee production.

Guatemala has had a long, difficult history: a prolonged and violent 200-year experience with colonization; a permanent regime of dispossession and expropriation of indigenous communities; structural violence organized as political violence and civil war between 1954 and 1996, which has continued as rampant criminal violence in the democratic and post-conflict period; and one of the most unequal societies in the hemisphere with extremely high rates of child malnutrition and poverty.

The 20th was a lost century for Guatemala, in that the country failed to build state institutions. During this period, a strong military power inhibited the development of the state. There was also more than a decade during which the end of the civil war was not formalized. This led to idle security apparatuses that obeyed certain clandestine interests and diverted into criminal activities. As a result, competent and trained individuals with significant official status were able to weave together criminal organizations and partner with transnational crime.

Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. According to the National Forensic Institute (INACIF), the murder rate in 2015 was 35 per 100,000, making Guatemala one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Rule of law is lacking and the judicial system is weak, overworked, and inefficient. The police are understaffed and sometimes corrupt.

Given the weak rule of law, violent common crime is a major problem in Guatemala. Gangs are a constant concern in urban areas and gang members are often well-armed. Widespread narcotics and alien smuggling activities make some remote areas dangerous, especially along Guatemalas border with Mexico. Security, therefore, remains a widespread concern; however, foreigners are not usually singled out as targets of crime.

There have been recent examples of violence that resulted in extrajudicial killings, illegal detentions, and property damage as a result of investment projects. The main source of tension among indigenous communities, Guatemalan authorities, and private companies had been the lack of prior consultation and alleged environmental damage. The UNs Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported an increase in conflicts over the exploitation of natural resources in indigenous areas between 2012 and 2014. In more than a dozen incidents between 2012 and 2014, the governments response has been the declaration of a state of emergency, limiting certain constitutional rights in the conflicted areas.

Large demonstrations occur, often with little/no notice, and can cause serious traffic disruptions. Although most demonstrations are peaceful, they can turn violent. The use of roadblocks and/or blocking of public facilities (airport) may delay/prevent tourists from reaching their destination.

Guatemala is a signatory to the Rio Pact and is a member of the Conference of Central American Armed Forces (CFAC). Guatemala has deployed its troops to UN peacekeeping operations in Haiti and the Congo and has observers in several other locations. The president is commander in chief. The Minister of Defense is responsible for policy. Day-to-day operations are the responsibility of the military chief of staff and the national defense staff.

An agreement signed in September 1996, which is one of the substantive peace accords, mandated that the mission of the armed forces change to focus exclusively on external threats. However, Presidents Colom, Berger, Portillo, and Arzu used a constitutional clause to order the army to temporarily support the police in response to a nationwide wave of violent crime.

The 1996 accord calls for a one-third reduction in the army's authorized strength and budget--achieved under President Berger--and for a constitutional amendment to permit the appointment of a civilian Minister of Defense. A constitutional amendment to this end was defeated as part of a May 1999 plebiscite, but discussions on how to achieve this objective continue between the executive and legislative branches.

The most immediate threat to human rights and democracy in Guatemala today is violent crime, fuelled by extreme poverty, inequality, and the lack of effective law enforcement. Guatemala has the most unequal distribution of income in Latin America, with over half the population living in poverty and nearly a fifth in extreme poverty; a sharp contrast to the extensive wealth among the business elite in the capital. Many perpetrators of human rights violations continue to escape justice due to a weak judicial system.

Guatemala suffers from a severe impunity problem, which exacerbates a wide range of crimes. The issue of impunity, coupled with the easy availability of firearms, allows for an environment primed for violent crime. Public institutions are unable to target large-scale criminal enterprises or curb petty crime. Crime statistics are often called into question.

Guatemala is consistently ranked by commercial security sources as one of the 25 most dangerous countries in the world. Violent crime is attributed to endemic poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence, and the presence of organized criminal gangs (Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), Mara Barrio 18 (18th Street)).

Guatemalas murder rate appears to be driven by four key factors: narco-trafficking activity, gang-related violence, a heavily-armed population, and a police/judicial system that is unable to hold many criminals accountable. Well-armed criminals know there is little chance they will be caught/punished. Criminal gangs employee juveniles (12 year olds) to commit targeted assassinations.

The number of extortions, often by the two main gangs, has risen dramatically in recent years. Extortions are common and target all sectors of society. Bus lines, markets, and small businesses are common targets; however, these gangs also target school children, street vendors, and private citizens. Home invasions by armed groups occur in upscale neighborhoods. Thieves gain access by enticing a resident to open the door for a delivery or rushing in. Occasionally, household staff is believed to be complicit in home invasions.

A particularly serious concern is incidents of vigilantism (stoning, lynching, immolation), especially in isolated, rural areas. The lack of police response to serious crimes can result in villages taking justice into their own hands, resulting in brutal attacks and deaths. Guatemala has many different and firmly-held local beliefs and customs. Particularly in small villages, residents are often suspicious of outsiders.

In January 2012, a group of National Geographic explorers, including US citizens, were detained and assaulted in Quich department by local residents when they jumped into a pond considered sacred in the Mayan tradition. The incident served as a warning to be mindful of local traditional practices when visiting indigenous Mayan communities.

Widespread narcotics and alien-smuggling activities make remote areas especially dangerous. Due to uncontrolled drug and alien smuggling, the border with Mexico (and in particular the northwestern corner of Petn) is a high-risk area. The border areas (Sierra de Lacandon National Park, Laguna del Tigre National Park) are among the most dangerous areas in Guatemala due to drug trafficking activity. Violent attacks have occurred in the Mayan ruins in Petn, including in the Cerro Cahui Conservation Park, Yaxh, the road to and inside Tikal Park, and in the Tikal ruins, particularly during sunrise tours.

Kidnappings are not as prevalent as they have been in the past. Given the complexity of kidnapping and the Policia Nacional Civil (PNC)'s attention to them, kidnappings are not as viable a criminal enterprise as extortions. The kidnappings that do occur are often connected to drug traffickers. In these instances, narcos are often well-armed and will use massive amounts of force to extort, kidnap, and kill. There have been express kidnappings in recent years, primarily in Guatemala City, in which kidnappers demand a relatively small ransom that they believe can be gathered quickly. Some kidnapping gangs are known to kill their victims regardless of a paid ransom.

Many city streets are illuminated, but secondary and rural roads have little/no illumination. Passing blindly on winding and steep mountain roads, poorly designed surfaces, randomly placed speed bumps and unmarked hazards, including landslides and precarious temporary highway repairs, present risks to motorists.

Driving demands one's full attention, requiring that drivers be defensive. Speed limits, lane markings, and stop signs are frequently ignored. Many drivers do not use turn signals; instead, a common custom is for a driver or passenger to stick a hand out the window and wave it to indicate that they will be taking an unspecified action. Drivers often drive at the maximum speed their vehicle can handle. Drivers share the road with slow vehicles, some barely able to manage 20 miles per hour, creating a hazardous mix of velocities. Further, cars and trucks are often stalled or parked in the middle of the road. Tree branches are often placed in the road 100 meters or so before the stalled vehicle to warn approaching traffic of a hazard.

Driving outside of urban areas at night is dangerous and not recommended. Intercity travel after dark is extremely dangerous and should be avoided. It is highly recommended to caravan with at least two cars outside of Guatemala City. Emboldened armed robbers have attacked vehicles on main roads in broad daylight. Travel on rural roads increases the risk of being stopped by a criminal roadblock or ambush. The Inter-American Highway (CA-1) and the road from Guatemala City to the Caribbean coast (CA-9) are especially dangerous due to heavy traffic (large trucks, trailers) and poorly-maintained vehicles that often lack properly functioning lights.

The most common resource for public transportation is the network of informal bus lines. These bus routes are serviced by brightly colored, recycled school buses. The buses are poorly maintained, and the drivers are barely qualified, creating an untenable security situation. Additionally, these bus lines are prime targets for extortions and robberies. Bus drivers are habitually assaulted or murdered while on their routes as a consequence of the growing extortion problem. Taxis are barely safer than buses. A number of gypsy cabs and unprofessional companies serve metropolitan areas. These cabs can be targeted by or be complicit in criminal activity.

Water isnt generally safe to drink unless filtered, but bottled water is cheap and widely available. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services, although most private hospitals accept major U.S. credit cards. They do not typically enter into payment plan agreements. Travelers should be aware that they may have to pay in advance and seek reimbursement.

Algal blooms (red tides), which occur periodically, produce toxins that can accumulate in seafood. Ingestion of fish and shellfish harvested in areas affected by algal blooms may cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. The level of toxin present in shellfish varies by geographic location and even among shellfish harvested within meters of each other. The toxin can persist for months after the end of the red tide. The acute effects of paralytic shellfish poisoning normally appear within one hour and include tingling, numbness, burning of the lips, rash, and fever. In severe cases, paralytic shellfish poisoning may cause respiratory paralysis and death. Cooking does not destroy the toxin causing paralytic shellfish poisoning.





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