A private security guard stands watch in Guatemala City

The private security sector in Central America is large and growing fast, raising concerns about the lack of proper oversight of the industry as well as the shortage of resources for law enforcement in the region.

According to an AFP report, the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have the largest concentration of private security firms in the region. The news agency cites figures recently released by the Pan-American Private Security Federation (FEPASEP), which put the number of private security personnel in Central America at more than 200,000.

Security analyst Omar Garrido told the AFP that the figure could be even higher, with that number of private security personnel employed in the Northern Triangle alone, and more than 300,000 in the region as a whole.   

The investigation found that security guards outnumber police in Guatemala by a factor of four to one. In Honduras, the most violent nation in the world in terms of its homicide rate, there are more than twice as many private security personnel as police officers (29,000).

Even in Costa Rica, considered a bastion of relative security and rule of law in Central America, there are twice the number of security guards as the 13,000 police.

What’s more, the demand for these services is on the rise. According to the AFP, the private security industry in the region overall is growing by 8 percent annually.

InSight Crime Analysis

One of the main concerns about the private security industry in Central America is that it lacks proper regulation, and that guards could be involved in illegal activities. In Honduras, for instance, security guards have been linked to violence in the land conflict in the Bajo Aguan region. According to international and domestic human rights groups, these guards intimidate and clash with locals at the behest of large-scale agro companies.

In El Salvador -- where there are some 25,000 private security personnel compared to the national police force of 20,000 -- the role of private security has come under scrutiny for suspected links to the illicit arms trade. In 2011, the government announced that more than 1,700 firearms used by private security companies since 2009 had been sold on the black market after being reported missing.

Authorities have demonstrated increasing interest in regulating the industry in Guatemala, where military personnel have been accused of coordinating with private security firms in so-called Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (CIACS) in the past, often in the interests of powerful drug trafficking networks. In 2010 the government passed a law which required security firms to register with the state and explicitly prohibited active duty military personnel from working with private companies in any form. However, as of February only two of the 150 registered security firms in the country had even begun the registration process.

Despite the issues associated with private security firms in Central America, they may be a necessary tool for companies doing business in the region, which often find themselves besieged by threats and violent crime. In the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, for instance, more than 90 percent of businesses report having experienced threats, mostly in the form of attempted extortion. Police forces in the region often lack the resources to properly shield the private sector from these criminal forces, giving rise to the demand for private security.

The situation has taken a toll on the economic health of the region. World Bank analysts estimate that violence in Honduras alone costs the country some 10 percent of its annual gross domestic product (GDP).

Yet despite the heavy cost of crime to the economy, business associations and economic elites have remained largely opposed to attempts by governments in the region to institute “security taxes” intended to boost funding for anti-crime efforts. 

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

Special Agent David LeValley headed the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Washington office until last November 8. While in office, he witnessed the rise of the MS13, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) and other smaller gangs in the District of Columbia as well...

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Former Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla -- a decorated war hero and a longtime US ally -- finds himself treading water amidst a flurry of accusations about corruption and his connections to drug traffickers. López Bonilla is not the most well-known suspect in the cases against...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

Throughout the continent, the debate on whether or not the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang is working with or for drug traffickers continues. In this investigation, journalist Carlos García tells the story of how a member of the MS13 entered the methamphetamine distribution business under the powerful auspices...

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and...

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...