Guatemala Debates Hardline Cell Phone Theft Law

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Guatemalan Congress is currently considering a law that would make the activation of a stolen cell phone punishable by up to eight years in prison and up to 100,000 quetzales (about $12,800) in fines.

The law was formally presented to Congress on June 27. It includes the creation of a national data base that would include every registered cell phone number in the country, a proposal that has drawn criticism over whether such a registry could facilitate the violation of civil liberties.

The proposed law also imposes more severe penalties on cell phone use in prisons, making it punishable by between two to four years in prison.

Vendors who sell stolen cell phones would also face between six to eight years in prison.

InSight Crime Analysis

This “mano dura” (iron fist) cell phone law could possibly disencentivize the illegal cell phone trade by imposing such harsh punishments. But the risk is that the policy would fill up Guatemala’s overburdened prisons with citizens prosecuted for the mere crime of perhaps unknowingly activating a stolen phone. Because Guatemalan cell phones revolve around the use of prepaid calling cards, it is easy for cell phones to change hands, and this could increase the risk of someone unintentionally activating a phone which is in fact stolen. Nor is it clear whether vendors could be prosecuted simply for selling a stolen phone, or whether prosecutors would have to prove that they were knowingly selling stolen goods.

The tougher penalties on cell phone use is prisons is one indication of how important prisons have become as a center for extortion schemes, many of which are carried out via cell phones. The new law appears intended to address this.

That the new law is seeking such tough punishments for cell phone theft is partly a sign of how ubiquitous the crime has become in Guatemala. Guatemala’s Public Ministry reportedly registers up to 3,000 cell phone thefts per month, equivalent to 100 per day and four per hour, according to ElPeriodico.

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