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GUATEMALA: Homicide Rate – From Bad to Worse

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Dec 12 2007 (IPS) - The poorest parts of Guatemala, rural areas mainly inhabited by indigenous people, have lower violent crime rates than the rest of the country, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which warns in a new report that the murder rate – one of the highest in the region – has climbed steadily since 1999.

The violence tends to be seen in the less-poor municipalities where the majority of the population is not indigenous, which indicates the need to carry out a more in-depth analysis of the relation between violence and inequity, Arturo Matute, an expert from the Violence Prevention Programme, said in a press conference.

According to official statistics, 51 percent of Guatemala’s 13 million people live in poverty, although non-governmental organisations (NGOs) put the proportion closer to 80 percent.

And while indigenous people officially make up 40 percent of the population, NGOs like Refugees International estimate the proportion at 65 percent. The rest of the population is mainly of mixed-race (indigenous and European) heritage, with a small minority of European descent.

The UNDP Statistical Report on Violence in Guatemala, based on official data from the National Civil Police, was presented Wednesday in the capital.

The report, which notes that the homicide rate stood at 47 per 100,000 population last year, also observes that two other Central American countries, El Salvador and Honduras, have even higher rates, of 59.9 and 59.6 per 100,000 population, respectively, in 2005.

“The tendency is a gradual deterioration over the years, which has not been reverted despite the efforts made, and which places Guatemala among the countries with the highest homicide rates in Latin America,” Matute said in the press conference held Tuesday by Beat Rohr, UNDP resident representative in Guatemala.

In 1999, 2,655 homicides were reported, compared to 5,885 in 2006, says the report.

The report also underscores the steady rise in murders of women between 2001, when 303 were committed, and 2006, when the total climbed to 603.

Presented in book format, the report contains six “Victimisation Surveys” conducted in the last three years, aimed at “fleshing out the official statistics” by shedding light on how Guatemalans feel with respect to the rise in violent crime, said Matute.

A total of 2,725 people above the age of 18 were interviewed in 639 households in Guatemala City in the first half of the year. The survey found that at least one member of the family in 37.3 percent of the homes was affected by crime in that period. Muggings, robberies or theft accounted for 80 percent of the cases.

But 74.9 percent of the crimes were not reported to the police. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents said it was useless to report crimes; 13.1 percent said the crimes were not serious; and 9.7 percent said they feared reprisals.

In Guatemala there is widespread mistrust of the justice system and the security forces, which have been penetrated by organised crime.

On Sept. 26, Julio Hernández Chávez resigned as chief of the National Civil Police after two of his bodyguards were accused of murdering five suspected drug dealers, who had been seized a few days earlier in a poor Guatemala City neighbourhood.

To strengthen and purge the country’s justice system, an International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) will begin work in January – the result of an agreement signed in 2006 by then President Óscar Berger and the United Nations.

The commission will consist of prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials from Guatemala and from the United States and Europe who are familiar with human rights and criminal and international law.

CICIG will assist the Guatemalan Public Prosecutors Office, the Supreme Court and the National Civil Police in investigating criminal activities of illegal, armed security groups and organised crime, by providing technical assistance and promoting criminal prosecutions.

So far this year, 3,114 murders have been committed, mostly by firearms, according to a report by the Mutual Support Group (GAM), a local human rights organisation. Of that total, 364 of the victims were women.

The six “Victimisation Surveys” carried out over the last three years show that in Guatemala City, men are more affected by crime than women, although women feel less safe than men. In addition, the studies point out that most crimes are committed by young people against other youngsters, with the overwhelming majority of both victims and victimisers ranging in age from 18 to 35.

The survey that covered the first half of this year showed that the soaring crime rates are the main concern of local residents, with 61.5 percent of respondents mentioning it as their biggest worry, followed by the 14.7 percent who cited unemployment.

The sense of vulnerability leads many families to invest in private security guards for their homes. According to the UNDP, 10.9 percent of households in Guatemala City pay for private security services.

When asked who they believe are chiefly responsible for the crimes committed in their neighbourhoods, the interviewees in all six surveys pointed more to common thieves than to members of “maras” or youth gangs.

The UNDP report points out that constantly worrying about safety undermines quality of life.

Extortion is routine in the poorest neighbourhoods in the capital, where many people are forced to flee from their homes, leaving behind their jobs and their old lives, to avoid being killed.

The recommendations outlined by the UNDP include top priority attention for young people in terms of preventing violence, and crime and weapons control measures, integrated with prevention programmes in which local communities participate.

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