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In the last decade, homicides in Guatemala have obeyed a fairly steady pattern. Guatemala City and some of its surrounding municipalities have the greatest sheer number of homicides. Other states, particularly along the eastern border have the highest homicide rates. Among these are the departments of Escuintla, Zacapa, and Chiquimula. The northern department of Petén, which encompasses nearly a third of the country’s land mass, also routinely has some of the highest homicide rates.[1]

There are multiple explanations for this distribution of homicides, but there is no consensus and few systematic studies to back these theories. The first theory is that drug trafficking is at the heart of the violence in these areas. An oft-cited World Bank study on violence in Central America[2] quotes an unpublished paper by Cuevas and Demombynes.[3] The researchers used an econometric model of crime levels based on drug seizures, demographic factors that contribute to violence (large population of youth and single-mother households), a classification of areas based on whether they were conflict zones during the civil wars, and socioeconomic data. They found that drug trafficking was by far the most important of these indicators.

“Within any one country, controlling for other factors, drug trafficking hotspots have murder rates more than double those in areas of low trafficking intensity,” the World Bank report stated. “For example, a 10 percent increase in female-headed households would lead to a 1 percent increase in the homicide rate. Similarly, a 10 percent rise in the population share of 15- to 34-year-olds would lead to an increase in the homicide rate of about 9 percent. At the other extreme, a jump in narcotics trafficking large enough to make an area a drug traffic hotspot would produce a 111 percent increase in the homicide rate.”[4]

The proxy used to determine these hotspots, however, is questionable. First, there are only a small number of drug seizures in Guatemala as a whole. In 2015, for example, 7.25 metric tons were seized by the Guatemalan government, a relatively high number for this country compared to years past.[5] The US government, however, believes that hundreds of tons pass through Guatemala, and Guatemalan authorities say that these drugs move through various corridors that include some of the most, and some of the least, violent areas.

What’s more, as Juan Carlos Garzón pointed out in a recent study for Igarapé and the Fundación Ideas para la Paz, the drug seizures proxy would lead us to banner download Homicides-Guatemalabelieve that Panama and Costa Rica should be the most violent countries in Central America when they are in fact the least.[6] Furthermore, as Garzón noted, criminal organizations can regulate violence as much as they can cause it.[7] A case in point is Huehuetenango, one of Guatemala’s least violent departments. InSight Crime has done extensive field research on the principal trafficking group in the area, known as the Huistas.[8] The Huistas make a concerted effort to control levels of violence in their area of influence to win favor with the local communities and to avoid unwanted attention from the authorities.

In short, the dynamic of drug trafficking is not limited to the eastern part of the country where the violence is traditionally concentrated, so how do we explain the lower levels of violence in the western part of the country? We cannot. While there are theories related to how the more “indigenous” western highlands are less prone to violence than the more “ladino” eastern states,[9] these theories are in their infancy and not the subject of this study.[10]

The second theory is that street gangs are responsible for much of the spike in homicide rates. This may be true in places like Guatemala City and its surroundings. There is a widespread perception that gangs and their predatory criminal economy, such as extortion, are key drivers for violence. Victimization surveys seem to support this theory.

However, gangs in Guatemala remain a very urban phenomenon. The difference in perception, for example, was evident in a recent study done by the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop in Guatemala. The survey — which was done in the departments of Guatemala, Petén, Quetzaltenango, San Marcos and Chiquimula — found that 40 percent of those polled in Guatemala had a significant concern about extortion versus just 13 percent in the other areas.[11]

Victimization surveys, it should be noted, are also deceiving. A study on violence in Guatemala by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) from December 2007, showed that perceptions of who was responsible for insecurity in neighborhoods in Guatemala City changed dramatically between 2004 and 2007, moving from “gangs” to “common thieves,” even while the situation itself was largely static. That change, the report surmised, was as much related to how the media covered the issue, as it was security strategies implemented by the state.[12]

The third major theory revolves around the availability of firearms. In Central America, 73 percent of homicides occur at the end of a gun, compared to a worldwide average of 41 percent.[13] In Guatemala, this number was 75 percent in 2015, according to INACIF data. The widespread availability of firearms in Central America was also covered in the World Bank study, which showed Guatemala as having the highest number of guns per capita in the region.[14] (See Table 1)

Table 1- Firearms Owned by Civilians in Central America - 2007 -01

To get a better understanding of the dynamics of the violence, we submitted several freedom of information requests to the government regarding homicides between 2012 and 2015. From the police, we received information regarding their designations of the homicides following the preliminary police reports. As we detail below, that categorization has extreme limitations. It is done by personnel that are not trained in crime analysis, and it is based on fragmented and preliminary presumptions of the first responders.

It is not surprising then that 49 percent of the homicides are categorized as “unknown” (“desconocido”), and 37 percent of the homicides are categorized as “personal vengeance” (“venganza personal”), a meaningless category since it is so broad, and it is impossible to tell who or what was behind it. This was followed by victims of a robbery or armed assault (“víctima de robo”), which represented five percent of the total. Behind these designations stood gangs. Even if we group three types of violent acts in a single “gang” category — “gang rivalry” (“rivalidad entre pandillas”), “victim of gangs” (“víctima de maras”) and “victim of extortion” (“víctima de extorsión”) — they still represent just four percent of the homicides. The other homicides, according to the police, are the result of a mixture of drug trafficking-related murders (“narcotráfico”), stray bullets (“bala perdida”), fights (“riña”), land disputes (“problema de tierras”), “crimes of passion” (“pasional”) and others. (See Table 2)

Table-2-Homicides-motives-2012-2015-01

Remarkably, for all the talk about drug trafficking-related murders from the highest officials, the PNC reported only 25 homicides in three years as drug trafficking-related. The flaws in the methodology were evident after a June 2013 massacre of nine police officers in Salcajá, Quetzaltenango. The motive was recorded as in “the line of duty,” but from the beginning it was clear that this was the result of drug trafficking feud in the region. It is not clear why the police used this classification.

Pinpointing the drug trafficking-related homicides makes for an even more absurd picture. In 2012, there were nine drug trafficking-related homicides in Guatemala City; three in Sanarate, El Progreso; one in Moyuta, Jutiapa; and another in Jalapa, Jalapa. In 2013, two were chronicled in San Miguel Petapa, Guatemala; one in Guatemala City; one in La Gomera, Escuintla; one in Retalhuleu, Retalhuleu; and two others in Quetzaltenango, Quetzaltenango. In 2014, two were chronicled in Mixco, Guatemala and one in Guatemala City. In 2015, there was one. In sum, there is no discernable pattern or trend in this information.

For their part, gang-related homicides chronicled by the police — i.e., gang rivalries, victims of gangs, and extortion — showed a fairly steady trend (173, 163, 156, and 165) in terms of numbers of cases registered over the years. But like drug trafficking-related homicides, the amount attributed to gangs was far below what officials have stated on the record. As noted earlier, most of these occurred in and around Guatemala City. In 2014, for example, between 84 and 87 percent of the violence attributed to gangs occurred in the Department of Guatemala. (See Table 3)

Table-3-Gang-related Homicides - Department of Guatemala - 2014-01

Our efforts with the Attorney General’s Office were also frustrating. We requested and received data of the crimes and the office’s categorization of these crimes during the years 2012-2014. However, their categorization was too broad to give us any deep understanding of the dynamics of homicides.

We followed this up with a request to view the type of weapon that was used in the murders. However, aside from the general differentiation between firearm, knife or machete, and a blunt object, the MP barely registers any information. In 2014, for example, the MP registered the use of a firearm in just 592 of 4,276 homicide cases. What’s more, the MP said the specific type of firearm was “not registered” (“no registrado”) in 92 percent of those cases.

There are several possible explanations for this: the information was not available; this is not part of their normal information gathering process; the information did not seem relevant; the information was sensitive or put them in danger (e.g., if the weapons had markings that illustrated they had come from the police or the armed forces).

Given these limitations, we turned our attention to two areas where we believed we could better test the hypotheses that drug trafficking-related murders (Chiquimula) and gang-related murders (Zona 18, Guatemala City) are driving the homicide rates. Below are our findings.

Analysis of the Homicides in Chiquimula

The municipality of Chiquimula is the capital of the department of the same name. According to population projections of the National Statistics Institute (INE), by 2015 it had a population of close to 100,000. Located along the border with Honduras and El Salvador, Chiquimula is also an important corridor for contraband, illegal drugs, human smuggling and other illegal activities.

Map-1-Chiquimula-01

As can be seen in the map below, Chiquimula is connected to the most important contraband routes from those countries, such as Copán, Honduras; Ocotepeque, El Salvador; and Metapán, El Salvador.

Map-2-Trafficking Corridors - Chiquimula

For many years, large operators have made Chiquimula their home and area of operation. This includes Byron Berganza who was captured, extradited, convicted and sentenced in the United States for drug trafficking; and Giovanny España, who was assassinated in 2010 by suspected members of the Zetas criminal organization. Currently, there are others suspected traffickers in the department, most notably the Chegüén family, the patriarch of which was recently incarcerated and is awaiting trial on murder charges.

Chiquimula has also long been one of the most homicidal places in the country. Between 2001 and 2014, the municipality averaged 78 murders a year, according to police data. This homicide rate did not always correspond with the national homicide rate. While the national homicide rate began to rise in 2000, in Chiquimula it dropped during those same years. It then rebounded and peaked in 2009, along with the rest of the country. The national decline of homicides in recent years on a national level has not corresponded to Chiquimula where homicides went up and have stayed high.

In every year but one (2003), the homicide rate in Chiquimula has been higher than the national average. Yet, in other ways, it follows national patterns. The age and sex of the victims are largely the same as national statistics. And the type of weapons used are similar; 78 percent of the murders were committed with a firearm, 16 percent with knives, 4 percent with a blunt object, and 2 percent were strangled, according to INACIF data.

InSight Crime obtained the preliminary police reports for nearly every homicide reported in the municipality of Chiquimula during 2014 and 2015, in an attempt to better ascertain the motives and actors behind the homicides. Like the national data provided by authorities, the results are fragmented and incomplete. Nonetheless, we can see some patterns.

To begin with, there are numerous incidents — especially during 2015 — in which the victims are shot multiple times or there are signs of torture, bodies are moved, high caliber weapons are involved, or there is a modus operandi that indicates the presence of a sophisticated, well-armed, clearly intentioned organization at the crime scene. As noted in the methodology section, these are the indicators that we are using to determine if something could be related to drug trafficking activity.

SEE ALSO: Full Report on Homicides in Guatemala

However, the local dynamics of the area are of critical importance and lead us to an important preliminary determination: drug trafficking is an incorrect way of describing the dynamics behind this violence. As noted, one of the groups that was most active in the area during this time period was known as the Chegüén. The Chegüén’s leader is Eduardo Chegüén Sagastume, from which they draw their name. He and eight others from his organization were arrested in 2014,[15] but all the officials that InSight Crime spoke to said they continue to operate from jail.

Their services include trafficking drugs, for which they use a series of intra-municipal bus companies they own. According to the MP’s investigation of the organization,[16] the drivers of these companies are used “to gather useful information.” But the Chegüén also have a vibrant loan sharking business, and they have a formidable hitmen-for-hire business. What’s more, people who work for them, such as lawyers, can also come in the line of fire, as may have happened recently in Chiquimula,[17] according to police and judicial sources in the area.

The point is that there were numerous illegal businesses that can be at the heart of violent crime even if we are talking about one single criminal organization, something former Interior Minister Francisco Jímenez once categorized as the “cascading effect” of drug money.[18] A look at the homicides and the information compiled by the police shows how these tendencies play out. In the two-year period studied, at least six bus drivers and one bus assistant were killed. At least two of these drivers worked for Chegüén’s companies. In only one of these attacks was anything allegedly stolen from the bus. In the other cases, the attacks had indications that they were premeditated and were aimed at the driver.

There are also a number of cases in which the word “loans” or small-time “loan shark” (“prestamista”) comes up in the preliminary investigation or in the media reports. Again, these did not include robberies. In one case, for example, a woman who had worked as a loan shark opened her door and was shot dead. And others, such as the lawyer, seemed to have paid the price for association.

“There are times in which the assassination is super violent and there are rumors from people who say: ‘We know that he was involved in something but we don’t know what.’ (Or), ‘They said that this person was a loan shark,'” one of the prosecutors in Chiquimula explained.

The interviews with the police and local prosecutors reinforce the idea that homicides are related to multiple factors, only one of which might be “drug trafficking.” Prosecutors interviewed by InSight Crime said they could reasonably attribute up to 25 homicides to the Chegüén in the period between 2013 and 2015. But they could not necessarily discern the motive behind all the murders due to the fact that the organization was diverse and also had a murder-for-hire business. They also could not rule out that some of their personnel freelanced.

“There are times in which the assassination is super violent and there are rumors from people who say: ‘We know that he was involved in something but we don’t know what.’ [Or], ‘They said that this person was a loan shark,'” one of the prosecutors in Chiquimula explained. “This same Chegüén network was loan sharking. They collected money every week and if you didn’t pay, you got threatened and after that, you got assassinated.”

The prosecutors connected the criminal acts in the Chegüén cases by using not just testimony but the ballistic evidence. They said the hitmen for Chegüén used the same weapon for at least eight of the murders. The same connection was made as they were studying another group, which they nicknamed “Los España,” because the killers and the victims were from the same family whose last name was España. The source of the dispute in the España case, however, was less clear, although the investigators believe it was related to land or inheritance issues.

“In the majority of homicides or assassinations that we’ve done, it’s a fight over land. There are very few homicides where a criminal network is involved,” the head of the Chiquimula prosecutor’s office, Hugo Rosales, said. “The thing is that the boundaries are not well marked, and the neighbors can’t reach an agreement, and that’s why they take violent actions.”

Police investigators seconded this thesis. They told InSight Crime that there are no clear ways of mediating these land disputes, which is what opens the door to violence. And then once one family takes the life of another, a chain of retribution can begin that can last for years. These cases are easier to distinguish from the others, both the police and prosecutors say, because of where they happen (rural areas) and the type of weapon used (blunt objects, knives or machetes).

Vigilantism is also common, both prosecutors and police say. There are, for instance, no indications that gangs are present in Chiquimula. The local refrain is, “gang member seen, gang member dead” (“marero visto, marero muerto”). “When a gang member appears [in the town], they kill him,” one police investigator flatly told InSight Crime.

Distinguishing between these various criminal acts is made even harder by the fact that the local investigators do not resolve any cases, so speculation, even on their end, abounds. Of the 198 murder cases they logged in the municipality between 2013 and 2015, they had cleared three of them by the time this report was published. (The Chegüén case, which included murder charges, was passed to the organized crime unit in Guatemala City, so it does not count.) The reasons for this low clearance rate are many and not the subject of this investigation. Prosecutors say they are overloaded. One prosecutor told InSight Crime he currently had over 7,000 cases of all types, not just homicides. They also cite fear, lack of resources, incompetence, and bureaucracy.

The end result is that in order for us to come any closer to understanding the dynamic of homicides from an analytic perspective, we have to rely on the police’s preliminary reports. As noted in the section on data collection, these reports are not well organized. In fact, July and December of 2014 were missing entirely. What’s more, there is no indication of any cases linked to drug trafficking organizations, unless we use the term to describe the Chegüén group. So in characterizing this multilayered underworld, we have opted for the words “organized crime,”[19] even while using the same criteria for determining these homicides established for “drug trafficking-related” homicides in the methodology section.

Of the 143 murder cases in Chiquimula chronicled by the police during 2014 and 2015, we classified 40, or about 28 percent, of the homicides as possibly related to organized crime. Another 49 homicides, or 34 percent, we can say with some degree of confidence have no relation with organized crime. And 54 homicides, or 38 percent, are unknown, meaning they could be related to organized crime or not, but we simply cannot say with any degree of confidence one way or the other. (See Figure 1)

Figure 1 Chiquimula Organized Crime-related Homicides 2014 - 2015-01 1

The reasons for placing most of these murders in the organized crime category were related mostly to modus operandi. The factors that stood out the most were where the murders took place (very often in public places), the means by which they were executed (very often from motorcycles), the type of weapon employed (high caliber pistol or assault rifle), and the number of bullets expended. In a few cases the body had been moved after an obvious execution with multiple rounds. We eliminated the possibility of organized crime by looking closely at the weapon employed, the place of the murder, the limited testimonies available either from the police reports or the press reports that we could use to cross check this information.[20]

In general terms, there are other important aspects to note. First, as the prosecutors and police pointed out, the type of weapon used in the murder also varies somewhat from the national average. In only 47 percent of the cases did the police state that a firearm was clearly used to kill the victim or victims. This number obviously could and most likely did rise significantly after the autopsies; in nearly half the 104 cases analyzed, the police refrained from hypothesizing about the weapon employed. Still, the police reported that there is significant number of victims whose injuries were more consistent with injuries from a sharp or a blunt object rather than a firearm. (See Figure 2)

Figure 2 Chiquimula Homicides by Weapon 2014 - 2015i-01

The average age of the victims, 35, is consistent with that of the department as a whole but also different from the national average. There is little this tells us, aside from the fact that the victims are older than urban homicide victims who die in large numbers in their late teens and early twenties. (See Figure 3)

Figure 3 Chiquimula Homicides by Age 2014 - 2015-01

In terms of their occupation, the most oft-cited job for victims is that of small farmer — again, consistent with the testimonies of the prosecutors and police who believe that much of the homicides are related to disputes over land or longstanding family feuds. This is followed by “housewife,” “student,” “driver/assistant,” and “shop owner.” A large number of victims’ occupations are unknown and could be important to understanding the dynamics of violence. Still, given the variety of professions, it is hard to discern any overriding pattern aside from perhaps the rural nature of the violence. (See Figure 4)

Figure 4 Chiquimula Homicides by Occupation 2014 - 2015-01

In sum, after analyzing two years of reports, a complex picture emerged from Chiquimula more akin to the complexities we see throughout the region. While there are a considerable number of homicides that appear related to organized crime, there is also a large number that are not. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that there remains a sizeable portion of cases in which we simply cannot determine motive or actor. A similar conclusion can be drawn from looking at a more urban, gang-controlled area, as we do in the next section.

Analysis of the Homicides in Zona 18

With over 300,000 residents, Zona 18 is one of Guatemala’s most densely populated areas. It is also one of its poorest and most violent. Located on the northern tip of the city, the neighborhood has a plethora of criminal activity. Both street gangs and more organized criminal groups operate in the area. All criminal organizations benefit from the tight spaces in which the local population and security forces have to operate, controlling entry and exit points for the multiple micro-neighborhoods, or “colonias,” as they are known, that make up the area. They also benefit from the direct access to rural areas, adjoining municipalities, and two of the city’s main north-south thoroughfares that lead out of the city to important hubs. (See Map 3)

Map-3-Zona-18-in-Guatemala-city-01

The country’s two main gangs, the Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), both operate in the Zona 18, although Barrio 18 controls far more territory, police sources said. Both gangs’ criminal revenues center on extortion and petty drug dealing. They are both highly territorial, and are known to attack and kill for the simplest transgressions or perceived slights.

The current boundaries established between the gangs are fairly static. And the areas of highest contention between them appear to relate to bus routes, commercial areas, or highly trafficked drug distribution points. To cite but one example of why this is so important, the police say that income from extorting just one bus route in the neighborhood known as Maya can reach $1,000 per month; there are dozens of bus routes that go through the neighborhood.

The area hardest hit areas during 2014-2015 were the Colonias San Rafael, El Limón, Maya and the Paraisos (Paraiso I and Paraiso II), according to the police preliminary homicide report data we compiled. (See Map 4) These are well transited areas with commercial activity and where bus services pass. These hotspots remain remarkably steady from year to year, the police and MP say, but it’s harder to discern patterns when you study the homicides case by case.

Map-4-Hotspot-Zona-18 - 2015-Criminal-Incident-Zone-Guatemala-01 1

The average age of the homicide victim in Zona 18 was 28, according to the police data, considerably lower than in Chiquimula. The age of gang-related homicide victims, as determined by our analysis of the police homicide data, was 24. (See Figure 5) This corresponds to what officials say about gang victims and gang members themselves, who are frequently the victims in these homicides. The differences in age speak to the very different dynamics of the violence in these two places.

 Figure 5 Zona 18 Homicides by Age 2014 - 2015-01

The weapons used to commit these murders are consistent with national statistics: 70 percent of the murders were committed with a firearm in Zona 18, according to the preliminary police data. (See Figure 6) When it comes to potential gang-related homicides, this number goes up to 86 percent. There was a high number of “unknown” weapons. This could, in part, be related to the fact that some Zona 18 murders that happen inside of the local prison are also appear in the police preliminary reports. These jailhouse murders are mostly committed using makeshift weapons, not firearms.

Figure 6 Zona 18 Homicides by Weapon 2014 - 2015-01

In terms of occupation of the victims, there is no discernable pattern and a very large number of “unknown.” The highest number of victims were drivers but these were a mix of taxi drivers, tuc tuc* drivers and others such as a propane gas truck driver. Taxi drivers and tuc tuc drivers are known to work as lookouts for the gangs, but we could only attribute three of these homicide cases, out of 12, to being possibly gang-related. (See Figure 7)

Figure 7 Zona 18 Homicides by Occupation 2014 - 2015-01

In total, using responding officers’ reports and media reports,[21] we determined that 63 of the 154 homicides for which we found preliminary police reports during the 2014-2015 period in Zona 18, or 41 percent, were possibly gang-related; 27 cases were not gang-related; 10 cases we attributed to organized crime; 54 cases were unknown. (See Figure 8)

 Figure 8 Zona 18 Gang-related Homicides 2014 - 2015-01

This is in line with what the MP says. In interviews with InSight Crime, analysts from the prosecutors’ office attributed approximately 40 percent of the homicide cases in gang areas to gang activity. They cited the motives such as “vendettas,” “extortion” and “hitmen for hire” (“sicariato”). For their part, the police did not put a percentage on the number of homicides attributed to gang activity in the area, but they cited the following motives, which are in line with gang activity: vendettas for selling drugs or extorting in “enemy territory,” or pocketing extortion money that should be going to the boss or others. There were so many recent homicides linked to extortions that in 2015, the MP created a sub-unit within the homicide unit dedicated exclusively to extortion-related cases.

Of these motives, vendettas and sicariato are the most common explanations used by officials. They are both potentially gang-related, since it is supposedly the gangs who are committing the murders. But both could also refer to the gangs lending their services to others for reasons that have nothing to do with gang activity; or internal disputes within or between the gangs that have little or nothing to do with gang activity. In both cases, more details are needed to better determine how these relate to gang activities, if at all. As it is with organized crime-related murders, there would also have to be the determination of whether to place homicides that are committed by gang members, but are not related to their gang activities, in the category of gang-related murders.

The recruitment of minors to be used as hitmen is a trend, officials said, in part because the penalty for murder for minors are far below those of adults. When caught, minors receive a maximum sentence of six years in prison, according to the Guatemalan law. In July 2015, for instance, a 17-year-old was arrested for shooting and killing two female victims. The minor was in his fourth month of a two-year probation period for possessing an illegal weapon. In March 2016, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to six years in prison. The trial for the second murder is still pending, but his maximum sentence regardless will remain six years.[22]

Whichever gang controls a particular area has some effect on homicides, officials said. The MS13 is known as a slightly more “respectful” organization, less prone to violence. This is largely anecdotal but could impact the violence levels in places like Zona 18, where the gang activity is dominated by the Barrio 18. The officials said, for instance, that the total number of cases dropped in 2015, following several arrests of important members of the Barrio 18. For its part, the MP analysists noted the Limón neighborhood, where sicariato was most common, is a Barrio 18 neighborhood. Other crime-prone areas are Los Paraísos, Alamedas and San Rafael neighborhoods, as well as Las Ilusiones, according to a Precinct 12 official, which are all Barrio 18-controlled.

Perhaps the most alarming statistic from the preliminary police reports of Zona 18 was that 26 percent of the presumed gang-related victims were female, much higher than the national average of 11 percent.[23] MP representatives say they have noticed a steady increase in the forced recruitment of women in gangs, which accounts for an increase in the arrest of female gang members and the number of homicide cases involving women. The MP says it is closely studying female victims in these cases to see if it can determine the reasons behind these differences but did not offer any preliminary conclusions.

The MP attributed the remaining 60 percent of the homicide cases to domestic violence, or street brawls, among other social or domestic reasons. Our count slightly differs with theirs on this point. There were a number of homicides we could reasonably attribute to organized crime. This speaks to mixture of criminal activity in Zona 18, and the need to differentiate between the two criminal organizations. The officials did not mention this as a factor in Zona 18, but that could be because the gangs themselves are copying organized crime modus operandi and officials were not distinguishing between gang-related and organized crime-related murders. To be sure, the preferred method in these organized crime-related homicides is to use a firearm, but police told InSight Crime that some victims had been dismembered as well, usually as a message for someone else in a rival group or to scare potential or actual victims. In analyzing cases where bodies were dismembered or corpses were wrapped in plastic or other materials, InSight Crime has attributed these deaths to organized crime, but there may be some overlap here with gang-related murders and more investigation is needed to determine with greater precision whether the gangs are indeed adopting organized crime techniques.

As it is in Chiquimula, fear and threats impact the investigations in these urban areas. In February 2014, an MP analyst had to leave the country and request asylum in another country due to the threats the person received from gang members after testifying in court. The MP reports this case is not an exception. One attorney pointed out the difficulty in investigating cases due to witnesses’ reluctance to talk for fear of reprisals in the form of direct threats, or an attempt against their life. As a result, the MP has tried to rely less on witness testimonies, and more on scientific evidence. It has also adopted the habit of getting sworn testimony before a judge well before the trial (what is known as a “declaración como anticipo de prueba”), because witnesses are known to abscond come trial time. These testimonies are kept in a sealed file but are still valid for the case.

In sum, the picture that emerged from Zona 18 was one in which gang violence was a main, if not the main driver of homicides. That overlaps with what authorities claim. Still, as it was in Chiquimula, we have a large grey area, one in which we cannot determine with any precision whatsoever the actors or motives behind the violence. This troubling trend is directly related to the way in which authorities deal with the information that they gather to investigate the homicide cases, a subject we tackle in the next section.

*This incredibly labor intensive process was financed by the United States Agency for International Development via Democracy International. It was led by Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime. He initially worked with Carlos Mendoza, formerly of the Central American Business Initiative; Mendoza is now at the Finance Ministry. Julie López worked tirelessly the last quarter of the project compiling data and interviewing analysts and police. López and Victoria Dittmar went through and catalogued the hundreds of preliminary police reports that we gathered from Chiquimula and Zona 18. Steven Dudley wrote the report, with assistance from Mendoza and López. Jaime López-Aranda, a former Mexican government official who specializes in data collection and analysis, reviewed and commented on the methodology and drafts of the report. InSight Crime would like to thank Guatemala’s PNC, the MP’s office, and the Interior Ministry for their assistance in this project. Read entire report here.


[1]Rodrigo Baires Quezada, “Diez años de muertes violentas en Guatemala,” Plaza Pública, 11 February 2014. Available at: https://plazapublica.com.gt/content/diez-anos-de-muertes-violentas-en-guatemala

[2] Rodrigo Serrano-Berthet and Humberto Lopez, “Crime and Violence in Central America,” World Bank, 2011. Available at: https://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTLAC/Resources/FINAL_VOLUME_I_ENGLISH_CrimeAndViolence.pdf

[3] Cuevas, F. and G. Demombynes (2009). “Drug Trafficking, Civil War, and Drivers of Crime in Central America.” Unpublished paper.

[4] Rodrigo Serrano-Berthet and Humberto Lopez, “Crime and Violence in Central America,” World Bank, 2011, p. 22. Available at: https://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTLAC/Resources/FINAL_VOLUME_I_ENGLISH_CrimeAndViolence.pdf

[5] Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, “2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR),” 2 March 2016. Guatemala Country Report available at: http://state.gov/j/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2016/vol1/253266.htm

[6] Juan Carlos Garzón, “¿Cuál es la relación del crimen organizado el homicidio en América Latina?,”Igarapé and the Fundación Ideas para la Paz, June 2016, p. 3. Available at: http://cdn.ideaspaz.org/media/website/document/576973cc56899.pdf

[7] Ibid., pp. 9-13.

[8] See: InSight Crime, “Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The ‘Huistas,'” 1 September 2016. Available at: http://insightcrime.org/investigations/guatemala-elites-and-organized-crime-the-huistas

[9] International Crisis Group, “Corridor of Violence: the Guatemala-Honduras Border,” Crisis Group Latin America Report N°52, 4 June 2014, p. 6. Available at: http://crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/latin-america/Guatemala/052-corridor-of-violence-the-guatemala-honduras-border.pdf

[10]Claudia Méndez Arriaza and Carlos Mendoza, “Siete mitos sobre la violencia homicida en Guatemala,” elPeriodico and Central American Business Intelligence (CABI), 27 January 2013. Available at: http://ca-bi.com/blackbox/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/01/Siete-mitos-sobre-la-violencia-homicida-en-Guatemala.pdf

[11] Mariano González, et al., “Violencia en Guatemala: Estudio estadístico en cinco departamentos: Chiquimula, Guatemala, Petén, Quetzaltenango San Marcos,” Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala, 2011. Available at: http://odhag.org.gt/pdf/Violencia%20en%20Guatemala.pdf

[12] Arturo Matute Rodríguez and Iván García Santiago, “Informe estadístico de la violencia en Guatemala,” United Nations Development Programme, December 2007, pp. 67-68. Available at: http://who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/national_activities/informe_estadistico_violencia_guatemala.pdf

[13] Garzón, op cit., p. 5.

[14] Serrano-Berthet and López, op cit., p. 20.

[15]Emisoras Unidas, “Desarticulan banda de narcotraficantes en Chiquimula,” 21 November 2014. Available at: https://emisorasunidas.com/noticias/nacionales/desarticulan-banda-narcotraficantes-chiquimula/

[16] Guatemala Attorney General’s Office, “Estructura criminal Chegüén,” November 2014. Available at: https://issuu.com/ministeriodegobernacionguatemala/docs/estructura_criminal_Chegüén

[17] See: Michiquimula.com, “Dan muerte a abogado en interior de oficina jurídica,” 19 April 2016. Available at: http://michiquimula.com/noticias-es.php?noticia=7157

[18] International Crisis Group, “Guatemala: Drug Trafficking and Violence,” Latin America Report N°39, 11 October 2011, p. 7. Available at: http://crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/latin-america/39%20Guatemala%20–%20Drug%20Trafficking%20and%20Violence.pdf

[19] By organized crime, we mean a structured group of people that associate on a regular and prolonged basis to benefit from illicit activities and illegal markets. This group can be local, national or transnational in nature, and its existence is maintained using violence and threats; corruption of public officials; and its influence on society, politics and the economy.

[20] The media sources that were double-checked were: michiquimula.com and rescates-20.com, the local firemen’s website.

* Tuc tuc is the Latin America version of the Thai Tuk-tuk — the small, mostly three-wheeled vehicles that have limited range and operate as taxis in city neighborhoods or small rural towns.

[21] Our media sources for Zona 18 homicide reports were: Prensa Libre, elPeriódico, Emisoras Unidas, and the police’s own blog – pncdeguatemala.blogspot.com

[22] See cases MP001-2015-53364 and MP001-2015-58528 from Unidad de Delitos Contra la Vida.

[23] This was calculated by using the total number of homicides as tabulated by the MP, between 2008 – 2014, and dividing that by the number of homicides of women. See: Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), “Sistema de la mediación de la impunidad en Guatemala,” 2015, p. 46. Available at: http://cicig.org/uploads/documents/2015/Docto_SisMedImp_20160414.pdf

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