Since 2014, there have been more firearm seizures than homicides committed with guns in Guatemala.
Guatemala’s National Police (Policia Nacional Civil – PNC) has identified some of the routes used to transport the guns to and within the country, but they seem to know little about who owns them and how they end up in the hands of criminal organizations.
Guns are widely available in Guatemala. By August 2017, some 574,000 firearms were registered in the country. But according to figures from experts, at least a million more were circulating illegally.
Between January 2007 and October 2017, Guatemala’s police seized 47,340 firearms: an average of 12 every day, one every two hours.
According to the PNC, a firearm is used in at least eight out of every 10 killings.
But authorities in Guatemala are struggling to pinpoint exactly where the firearms come from and the routes traffickers use to bring them to the country.
Francisco Jiménez Irungaray, Guatemala’s Interior Minister between 2008 and 2009, says the police have focused on seizing guns but that they have no capacity to investigate where they come from nor to stop the trafficking.
“The issue of arms trafficking is not being looked at. It is not a priority,” he said.
This could be, in part, because Guatemala is a transit country for illegal arms being transferred between Mexico and the rest of Central America.
In 2010, the United Nations-supported International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) identified 45 hotspots across the Central American country’s borders used as illegal entry points for guns, ammunition and explosives.
According to an investigation by a Mexican think tank, illegal shipments of arms to Mexico originating from South America’s Andean Region also traveled through the Mexico-Guatemala border.
Another report by the US-based Woodrow Wilson Center revealed that arms headed for the south of Mexico traveled through Guatemala, occasionally after a stop in the Caribbean.
In 2016, Guatemala’s tax office (Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria – SAT) said that on 10 different occasions in the Caribbean port city of Santo Tomás, it had discovered undeclared firearms, pieces of guns and ammunition in containers originating from the United States, Panama and Mexico.
The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said that 40 percent of the guns seized in Guatemala between 2006 and 2009 came from the United States.
The tracking was done using e-Trace, a system used to track the manufacturer of a gun when it was bought in that country. But Guatemala stopped using the system seven years ago, when the National Institute of Forensic Science (Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses – Inacif) took over. Since then, police no longer have access to the data.
Seizure Data Trends
Guatemalan authorities believe most illegal arms are brought into the country by land although in some cases, they are brought in by sea.
Authorities in Guatemala estimate that most of the trafficked weapons are small arms — which accounted for 75 percent of the total seized in 2017.
In contrast, rifles (which can only be legally used by the military and the police) account for only 1.5 percent of all seizures, although there are likely to be more of these types of weapons in circulation.
The difference in the cost of each type of weapon is one of the reasons why there are more small arms in circulation than any other types of arms.
An assault rifle in good condition can cost between $1,200 and $3,000, according to extraoficial data. A handgun can be bought for around $400.
According to police data, at least half of all arms seizures over the last decade took place in the central department of Guatemala, the country’s most populous.
Arms have also been seized in the northern department of Petén, Guatemala’s largest state, which shares an extensive border with Mexico, as well as in the southern department of Jutiapa, bordering El Salvador, and the southwestern department of Escuintla on the Pacific coast.
Who Owns the Guns?
Some of the many guns currently in circulation in Guatemala are believed to be in the hands of the gangs operating across the country — although the police cannot estimate how many.
A researcher from the police force’s anti-gang division said that at least one gang operates in the south and southwestern coasts to move the arms they use.
“The strongest cliques of the Barrio 18 gang, Solo Para Locos and the Crazy Gangster, operate from the south of the city of the Cema all the way to the southwest of Guatemala and the south coast,” he said. “They take advantage of that route to transport arms from Mexico to Guatemala and from Guatemala to Mexico. They also transport arms to El Salvador.”
The data coincided with information from the departments where the police have registered the most seizures. In 2015, a gang member from El Salvador said, under the condition of anonymity, that the Mara Salvatrucha used to buy firearms in the department of Guatemala.
A police researcher says that arms are rotated among various criminal groups, which move them from one region of the country to another in order to avoid being tracked after they have been used on various occasions.
Former Interior Minister Jiménez says that gun control is the problem in Guatemala.
Figures from the Office of Arms and Ammunition Control (Dirección General de Control de Armas y Municiones – DIGECAM) show that in January 2017 there were 537,747 firearms registered across the country — a figure that reportedly rose to 547,000 by August.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking
At the same time, the DIGECAM reported that there are currently 60,658 licenses to carry guns and 553,028 to own one.
Guatemalan authorities and independent organizations estimate that nearly 1.5 million illegal arms are in circulation in the country.
Police Director Nery Ramos estimates that 92 percent of killings in Guatemala are committed using illegal firearms. Data from the National Forensic Science Institute (Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses – INACIF) reveals that most of the deaths in the country are caused by small arms, although the organization does not have public information on the caliber of the guns used.
Since 2014, the number of annual firearm seizures has slowly surpassed the number of homicides.
For example, in 2017 there were 3,883 deaths by firearm and 4,315 arms seized. In 2016, the year with the second most seizures in the last decade after 2009, there were 4,007 deaths and 4,940 seizures. However, the difference is difficult to interpret because one gun could have caused several violent deaths or none at all.
At the same time, high rates of arm seizures at the departmental level sometimes correlate with high rates of homicides by firearm. Escuintla, for instance, which is among the top three departments with the highest homicide rates, also has a high rate of gun seizures.
In Guatemala, the trafficking of arms is also linked to drug trafficking organizations.In late 2017, Rootman Pérez, a top anti-crime official in Guatemala’s Interior Ministry, said that firearms had become a form a currency and a way to move earnings from drug trafficking around.
Pérez said it is common for drug shipments to be paid for with arms instead of money as they are less difficult to move around and can be sold at arrival or during transit.
Up until 2014, Guatemalan drug lord José “Che” Manuel López Morales, extradited last year to the United States on drug trafficking charges, allegedly shipped guns for the Valle Valle brothers’ crime group in Honduras.