Homicide scene in Guatemala

Homicides in Guatemala decreased for the third year in a row in 2012, according to police figures, giving the country its least violent year since 2004.

Despite a slight increase in violence in November and December, in 2012 Guatemala's murders decreased for the third consecutive year, falling to to 5,174 in 2012, reported Reuters. This represents a decrease of 8.9 percent from the previous year and is the lowest total since 2004 when 4,507 murders were registered. The number of homicides peaked in 2009 at 6,498.

While Guatemala's murder rate per 100,000 is now down from 39 in 2011 to roughly 35 in 2012, it remains one of the highest in the world.

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The Vice Minister of the Interior, Arkel Benitez, told Reuters that the drop in violence can be attributed to the government's focus on reducing violent crime. President Otto Perez has credited law enforcement special task forces he established after taking office in January 2012, which focus on specific crimes such as femicide, car theft, and kidnapping.

There are several possible explanations for why violence has fallen after peaking in 2009. The trend of declining violence began under former President Alvaro Colom. His attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, who President Perez has kept on, has been very aggressive in tackling organized crime; she recently announced that impunity for homicide cases has dropped from 95 percent in 2009 to 70 percent in 2012. Similarly, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) -- a United Nations-mandated judicial body -- has made progress over the past five years in repairing Guatemala's broken justice system and fighting impunity. In addition to these institutional improvements, Central American Politics points out that the number of extrajudicial killings by police and other vigilante groups has declined.

While the downward trend in violence is encouraging, Guatemala still faces plenty of obstacles. The government has recruited more police and created elite units like the special task forces, but efforts at major police reform have stalled. The country's importance as a transit point for cocaine moving north to the US market and the entrenched presence of violent criminal groups mean that organized crime will continue to present a serious challenge to public security in Guatemala.

Despite the overall drop in homicides, certain regions have experienced an increase in violence. The murder rate declined in Guatemala Department, where the national capital is based, as well as the departments of Alta Verapaz and Peten, where the government declared "states of siege" in 2010 and 2011 respectively. The southeastern department of Zacapa -- which borders Honduras and is considered an important transit point for drug shipments -- remains Guatemala's most dangerous department. Along with Esquintla and Santa Rosa departments in the south, Zacapa experienced the biggest increase in homicide rates last year.

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