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Explaining the Jump in Guatemala's Murder Rate

A murder scene in Guatemala A murder scene in Guatemala

Statistics show that for the first time since 2009, homicides have begun to climb at a steady pace in Guatemala, raising the question of what could be behind the rise in killings.

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As indicated by security analyst Carlos Mendoza's findings for Central American Business News, thus far in 2013, monthly homicides have increased compared to the same period in 2012. April alone saw a 39 percent increase in murders compared to April 2012, according to police figures. Data kept by Guatemala's national forensics institute shows a smaller increase of 26 percent when comparing April 2012 to April 2013.

Overall, police numbers show that Guatemala registered a 20 percent rise in homicides during the first third of 2013, compared to the same time period in 2012.

This points to the reversal of a trend observed in Guatemala since 2010, when homicides began to slide downwards. The country's national homicide rate in 2009 was 46 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to the 2012 figure of 34 murders per 100,000. Mendoza notes that if this trend continues, 2013 would be the first time since 2009 in which Guatemala would witness an annual increase in violence.Graph 2

For his part, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, called April a "difficult month" in terms of violence, but said that things did not yet look so serious to warrant declaring a "state of emergency" in any of the 30 municipalities most affected by insecurity.

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Signs of trouble in Guatemala first appeared in March, when it became clear that the number of homicides was rising compared to the previous year. April's numbers show the trend continuing, and raise the question of how to explain the rise in violence.

In some ways, the change is inevitable, as Mike Allison -- a political science professor at the University of Scranton -- points out. "It would have been unreasonable to expect four straight years of lower murder rates," he told InSight Crime in an e-mail, adding, "After a twenty percent plus drop over the last three years, a little pullback had to have been expected."

One explanation for the "pullback" is that Guatemala is feeling the impact of the declining security in neighboring Honduras. As noted by Mendoza earlier this year, much of the homicides in Guatemala are concentrated in the southeast, with 79 percent of all murders taking place in just 10 provinces in this part of the country. Last year, Chiquimula and Zacapa, two provinces that border Honduras, were the most violent in the nation, a dynamic that has not changed thus far in 2013.

There are other explanations that could account for the rise in killings. Allison noted that no single group in the country seems to have been spared from the violence, including journalists, human rights workers, police, and agricultural workers. One concern is Perez's deployment of the military to "carry out public security functions best left to the police," he wrote. Under Perez, the government has expanded the military's role in the fight against organized crime, which has fed concerns that the military -- untrained in law enforcement duties -- could be committing abuses.

Other possible causes could include that capture and extradition of several prominent drug trafficking kingpins, which may have brought about violent repercussions in Guatemala's criminal underworld. There is also the matter of the Zetas' reported war with the Sinaloa Cartel over a drug trafficking route near Guatemala's Pacific coast. The internal rivalries that the Zetas are suffering in Mexico could be making themselves felt in the Guatemala faction. It is even possible that Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 members who oppose El Salvador's ongoing gang truce could have found refuge in Guatemala and are making trouble.

Mendoza told InSight Crime that another theory for the uptick in killings is that MS-13 and Barrio 18 members are keen to display their ability to shake up Guatemala's security. Many of the murders reported by Guatemalan media involve transport workers, who are usually killed by "maras" in relation to extortion collection, he said. The maras could be flexing their muscle in Guatemala in the hopes of eventually pressuring authorities to agree to give gang leaders preferential treatment in prisons, or even lead to the type of negotiations seen in El Salvador, he added.

Ultimately, all of this is speculation. The majority of Guatemala's murders are not resolved in court, and thus cannot be formally attributed to organized crime, drug trafficking, or other criminal phenomena. It is still too early to tell whether the numbers seen so far in 2013 truly represent a significant decline in Guatemala's security.

It is also worth noting that assessing a country's overall security situation based on the national homicide rate is not always the best indicator of whether things are getting better or worse. Guatemala's ongoing efforts to clean up its police force, for example, should still be counted as a significant sign of progress, even as the homicide numbers tell a different story.

Guatemalan President Perez, a former military official, was elected partly because he was viewed as a hardliner on security issues (although he has shown himself to be a would be reformer in the international arena when it comes to drug policy issues). His government made a point of touting the security advancements seen under his stewardship at the end of 2012, and it is likely that if the murder rate continues to climb, Perez may feel pressured enough to take dramatic action.

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