Over 300 community policing units in Guatemala operate illegally and some are engaged in the drug trade, according to a new study, highlighting both the dangers of informal security operations and the institutional weakness and lack of resources that plague the Guatemalan security forces.
Local security boards were first created to help fight crime in Guatemala in 1999, three years after the peace accords that ended the country’s civil war. According to a 2012 report from the Conflict Transformation Institute for Peace Development at Rafael Landivar University, there are now over 1,000 of these groups, though only 717 are legally registered, reported Prensa Libre.
According to Luis Mario Martinez Turcios, who oversaw the study, the authorities have lost control of many of these groups. Martinez said that a lack of state presence in some areas of the country has allowed the groups to gain autonomy, and to engage in kidnappings, impose curfews, carry out illegal arrests, and enforce their own judicial processes and punishments.
Among others, he cited the cases of Tajumulco and Ixchiguan in the San Marcos province near the Mexico border — where the largest number of registered units exist. In the region, which is a drug trafficking hotspot, illegal community policing units are tied to drug trafficking, hide arms in cemeteries and are frequently involved in confrontations, he said.
Vice Minister of Community Support Arkel Benitez denied the groups have become uncontrollable.
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The role of Guatemala’s local security boards was not clearly defined at the time of creation, but international aid groups insisted that they be used as part of a new security model to fight crime and violence, according to Plaza Publica. Later some municipalities, including Guatemala City, incorporated these boards into their institutional structure, but allowed them to function autonomously.
A lack of state resources, and police corruption are both major problems affecting Guatemalan security. In 2012, national police withdrew from 32 municipalities in Guatemala, many of them important to the drug trade, and nearly 200 police were removed from their posts for criminal ties. Though community police may provide security in otherwise unpoliced areas, their existence also poses dangers as they may take justice into their own hands or criminalize, as has happened in the past in Mexico and Colombia.