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GUATEMALA: The High Price of Violence

Claudia Munaiz and Alberto Mendoza

GUATEMALA CITY, Jan 23 2007 (IPS) - Civilian violence is already costing Guatemala half its national budget, as well as countless human lives and social breakdown, while corruption and impunity walk hand in hand.

Among the main economic consequences of this violence are: more resources spent on health services, loss of social capital, legal costs, worker absenteeism, investment in private security and a decline in productivity.

The Guatemalan state’s efforts to combat civilian insecurity in 2005 cost approximately 2.4 billion dollars, equivalent to 7.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), according to a report on “The Economic Cost of Violence in Guatemala”, by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

This is having a devastating impact on Guatemala, which despite having the largest economy in Central America with a GDP of 32.6 billion dollars, is ranked 118th on the UNDP Human Development Index, below countries with lower per capita incomes such as Bolivia, Nicaragua and Honduras.

Although official statistics indicate that 56 percent of the population of 13 million live in poverty, the U.S. State Department puts the proportion at nearly 80 percent, and reports that two-thirds of that number live in extreme poverty. The indigenous majority is most heavily affected by poverty.

The UNDP study reports that 5,337 people’s lives were cut short by violence in 2005. An overall climate of wariness and distrust caused by other crimes, such as an average of 35 robberies per month on buses in the capital, must be added to the violent death toll.

The roots of the violence go back several decades. Beat Rohr, the UNDP resident representative in Guatemala, said that meeting the challenge of improving security conditions for ordinary people is essential to ensuring the peaceful coexistence to which the 1996 peace accords aspire.

Dec. 29 was the 10th anniversary of the signing of the peace agreement that ended 36 years of civil war, in which more than 200,000 people died, most of them indigenous Mayan people. Included in that number were 50,000 forced disappearances. According to a truth commission report, the military was responsible for the great majority of the killings.

Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein admitted at a press conference that violence continues to be “a headache” for his administration, in spite of all the efforts made so far. One of the more controversial measures was the deployment of troops on the streets.

The Ministry of Health was the government agency that spent the most – some 900 million dollars – to tend those injured or wounded by violence in 2005. “The main reason for admission is fractures or injuries due to violence or accidents,” said Ludwig Ovalle, director of the San Juan de Dios public hospital in Guatemala City.

The judicial branch spent 4.6 million dollars, the Ministry of the Interior 28 million dollars, and the Office of the Public Prosecutor, one million dollars.

However, there are those who stand to gain from the violence, like private security firms. The report says that families and companies spend an average of 6,000 dollars a year for their services.

“We have padlocks, railings, electric fences and an alarm connected to a security company, for which we pay 30 dollars a month,” said Julio Mora, a middle class resident in the centre of the capital.

There is also a neighbourhood watch committee that reports everything going on in the area. “So far I’ve been lucky, but I know that very bad things have happened in other people’s homes nearby,” he told IPS.

One of his neighbours, a vendor who preferred to remain anonymous, is a good example of ordinary people’s obsession with security. In addition to all the other security measures, he has a dog and a gun that he periodically fires against a wall as a warning to potential burglars.

“If you hear shots at night, don’t worry, it’s just the vendor attempting to dissuade criminals,” Mora tells newcomers to the neighbourhood to reassure them.

But far from providing security, gun ownership has become a problem in itself. The police estimate there are over three million illegal weapons in circulation.

“I don’t want a gun. If you buy one, you may kill someone. There are too many guns in the country, that’s why gunfights happen,” Mora said.

The violence also appears to scare off foreign investment, although Guatemala is one of the signatories of the free trade agreement between five Central American countries, the Dominican Republic and the United States (CAFTA).

According to the UNDP report, the rate of investment growth is 16 percent below the expected level because of the impact of criminal violence on the investment climate.

The tourism industry, one of the country’s main foreign exchange earners, sustained an income loss of 474 million dollars in 2005 due to the violence, equivalent to nearly half of the 924 million dollars generated in 2006 by the country’s 1.4 million visitors.

“There are lots of things to do in Guatemala. We have nature, archaeology and culture to offer, and all in an environment where we work hard to provide safety for the tourists,” Daniel Mooney, director of INGUAT, the country’s tourism agency, told IPS.

But the moral and psychological damage done to victims of violence are irreparable. “No amount of money can buy a life. The state will be indebted to me forever, as they are to all victims of violence,” Rosa Franco, whose daughter María Isabel was murdered in December 2001 at the age of 15, told IPS.

Franco, who identified her daughter’s body while watching the news on television, told IPS that “there is too much impunity and corruption in this countryàHardly any cases are solved,” she said. The Office of the Public Prosecutor reports that only 46 murder cases out of the 4,352 on their books in 2005 went to trial.

For this family, the consequences are depression, constant anxiety, and less productivity as a family unit. “I even had a heart attack. I would exact payment even of the air that they breathe, but not even that would bring my daughter back,” said Franco, who is demanding a “public apology” from the authorities.

The National Reparations Programme is still a long way from completing the compilation and analysis of cases eligible for compensation. Up to June 2006, it had taken testimony from 8,000 people. Some 580 women were killed in 2005, according to information from the Human Rights Office of the Catholic Archbishopric of Guatemala.

Furthermore, the Guatemalan state has still not completed the task of indemnifying the tens of thousands of families of victims of the civil war, including those killed by the paramilitary “civil self-defence patrols” that carried out massacres in rural areas.

Marco Antonio Garavito, director of the Mental Health League, a social organisation involved in the treatment and promotion of psychological health, which is working on the cases of children who went missing during the civil war, said that “the study findings are terrible, because it’s money that could have been invested in something more positive.”

Garavito added that the authorities are not concerned about psychosocial issues. “There have been many suicides, an unknown number, which are another expression of the violence,” he said.

In his view, the social crisis has been exacerbated by the increase in criminal activity and drug trafficking. “The state apparatus is falling apart. Organised crime was hidden during the war, but after the signing of the peace accords it emerged very quickly,” Garavito said.

Guatemala has become a narcotics trafficking route to North America. The drugs are smuggled through the jungles of the northwestern department of Petén, on the border with Mexico, where drug traffickers own property and illegal airstrips.

The links between the “maras”, or youth gangs, and the drug trafficking rings are becoming increasingly evident. The power of the drug mafias is arousing fears that they may come to exert an influence on the political life of the country.

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