Crime has been a problem throughout Guatemala in the aftermath of the civil war, though statistics show most foreign travelers enjoy their visit to the country without any problems. As many veteran travelers to Guatemala like to point out, you’re still safer here than in many large U.S. cities.
Among Guatemala’s urban areas, Guatemala City has by far the greatest prevalence of crime. Much of this consisted of groups perpetrating robberies against arriving passengers heading into the city from La Aurora International Airport. Private vehicles, taxis, and shuttle buses have been targeted indiscriminately. Authorities were investigating suspected groups while simultaneously opening security checkpoints and police kiosks to provide greater police presence along this route. It remains to be seen whether large-scale infrastructural improvements involving roads adjacent to the airport (as part of the airport renovation project) will make things safer for arriving passengers.
A related issue is that of highway holdups on rural roads, a very unpleasant topic that I must nonetheless cover here. Sometimes, groups will use bends in the road and speed bumps to their advantage, stopping vehicles as they slow down and robbing passengers of valuables. In the most spectacular cases of highway banditry, pickup trucks carrying armed men will pursue a vehicle and then pass it. Another car might come alongside the victim’s vehicle while the car in front shoots at it in an attempt to make the driver stop the car. In addition to taking the passengers’ possessions, perpetrators occasionally drag the car’s occupants out of the vehicle, tie them up, and steal the car.
Guatemalans who sniff out an impending carjacking have been known to speed up as would-be perpetrators signal them to slow down, not without significant risk of being harmed by the bullets that are often landed on the car by frustrated assailants. If you are stopped and robbed, it’s best to remain calm and give them what they want. Opposing a robbery will only make things worse, as the thieves will see this as an invitation to use greater force. (I speak from a personal experience in Mexico). It’s hard to predict where robberies may occur, though certain areas do seem more prone to this type of crime than others. Among these areas are RN-11, along the southeastern side of Lake Atitlán, the road to El Salvador outside the Guatemala City area (Salvadorans are a favorite target), and some rural Petén roads.
For more on this topic, read the U.S. government’s Consular Information Sheet, found online at www.travel.state.gov. Another useful site is that concerning recent incidents of crime against foreigners in Guatemala, available at http://guatemala.usembassy.gov/recent_incidents.html. It will give you an idea of what can happen, but try not to let it alarm you.
Gang violence is also a growing concern. The groups, known as maras, operate in parts of Guatemala City not usually frequented by international travelers as well as in some urban areas throughout the country.
Kidnappings reached an all-time high after the civil war, usually involving prominent citizens held for ransom and sometimes returned to their families, depending on whether or not the ransom money was collected. They seem to have subsided in more recent years and rarely, if ever, involve foreigners.
During your trip to Guatemala, there are a number of common-sense measures you can take to avoid being becoming the victim of street crime. Don’t walk around wearing flashy jewelry and carry only the amount of cash you need for the day in a concealed place. Use safety-deposit boxes for important documents such as passports and plane tickets. In crowded cities, carry your backpack in front of you and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Always keep an eye on your luggage at the airport, bus terminals, and hotels. At night, take a cab and don’t go walking out and about after dark. At the beach, be sure not to bring too many things that might tempt thieves while you’re in the water. Also, be careful not to walk along isolated stretches of beach, particularly around the Caribbean city of Lívingston. It’s never a good idea to climb volcanic summits without a guide, particularly those around Antigua and Lake Atitlán, as these are especially prone to robberies.
That being said, there are still many areas of the country that are beautiful for backcountry hiking and remain crime-free, particularly the Western Highlands region of the Ixil Triangle, where you can still explore freely. Before embarking on a backcountry hike or volcano climb, always inform someone who is not going with you of your plans and when you plan to return.
The Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) was created after the civil war with help from Chilean and Spanish security forces but has not been the efficient security force it was hoped it would be. In addition to widespread allegations of corruption, it is perceived as being grossly inefficient. Corrupt agents are suspected of involvement with drug trafficking and the highway holdups, as many robberies occur shortly after travelers are stopped at police checkpoints and perpetrators are often described as wearing police uniforms. Despite these conditions, if you are stopped by police it is best not to offer a bribe, as straight cops will not hesitate to throw you in jail. It’s best to go through the usual mechanisms and pay the fine (if applicable). After being stopped, be particularly mindful of your surroundings and especially on the lookout for vehicles that might be following you a little too closely. If you have hired the services of Asistur, you may want to call and see if there is an agent in the vicinity to accompany you the rest of the way to your destination.
The Guatemalan military sometimes jointly patrols areas with police forces because of the latter’s demonstrated inability to provide a security presence that dissuades criminal activity. This has led to criticism because the joint patrols (as they’re called) run counter to the peace accords allowing for the creation of a professional civilian security force. The involvement of high-ranking police officers in the assassination of three Salvadoran diplomats and their driver in February 2007, in addition to denunciations that police forces harbor death squads within their ranks, may have served as the needed impetus for a systematic purge and revamping of the police forces (once again) from the ground up. It was a hot topic leading up to the election campaign.
In contrast, Tourist Police (Politur) are generally helpful and have been dispatched to patrol tourist areas. They have been particularly effective at curbing robberies in areas where criminal activity was once getting out of hand, including Tikal National Park and areas in the vicinity of Antigua.
Guatemala is a major transshipment point for cocaine coming into the United States from South America, as evidenced by the many clandestine landing strips found in isolated areas of Petén department. Marijuana is grown in remote lowland areas of Guatemala and poppy (the basis for heroin) is grown in the Western Highlands, particularly in the department of San Marcos.
High-ranking military officials have been implicated in drug smuggling, working with local cartels linked to Colombia’s powerful Cali cartel. United States drug officials have begun referring to Guatemala as la bodega (the warehouse), as it houses a large share of the cocaine continuing north to Mexico, from where it makes its final entry into the United States. Among the local cartels, the most prominent are based in the eastern lowlands near Zacapa (not an area frequented by foreign tourists), Izabal department, and the southern part of Petén department near Sayaxché. Some travelers have reported run-ins with local drug traffickers on private lands, but you’re unlikely to be harmed as long as you adopt a live-and-let-live attitude.
Cocaine consumption is an increasing problem among affluent Guatemalans, particularly in Guatemala City night clubs. Drug use is strictly forbidden by law and you will be thrown in jail without hesitation for violations. If you are arriving in Guatemala by air from elsewhere in Latin America, drug-sniffing dogs will probably be on hand to greet your flight and you may be questioned by authorities after clearing immigration procedures.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com