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Overseas Security Advisory Council
Bureau of Diplomatic Security
U.S. Department of State

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Guatemala 2020 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Guatemala. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s country-specific page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Travel Advisory

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Guatemala at Level 2, indicating travelers should exercise increased caution due to crime. Reconsider travel to Guatemala, Escuintla, Chiquimula, Quetzaltenango, Izabal, and Peten departments due to crime. Review OSAC’s report, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Threats

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Guatemala City as being a CRITICAL-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. There is a critical threat in all other departments of the country as well. Crime in Guatemala stems from many sources, and its impact is magnified by various issues such as corruption, an inadequate justice system, and the prevalence of both gang and narco activity across the country. The most common crimes against expatriates include petty theft and armed robbery. Many robberies occur during daylight hours while victims are walking or driving in well-known, well-traveled areas, including markets, public parks, and popular restaurant districts. Even the most upscale residential and commercial areas of Guatemala City (Zones 4, 10, 14, 15, and 16) experience violent crimes in broad daylight. These trends are not isolated to one specific part of the country. No area in Guatemala is immune to crime, including the most popular tourist destinations such as Antigua and Tikal. The U.S. Embassy Regional Security Office (RSO) continues to advise all U.S. citizens to be very vigilant of their surroundings and report any crime incidents promptly to the police.

Theft and armed robbery are the most common crimes committed against U.S. citizens (infrequently, RSO receives reports of extortion attempts as well). Members of the expatriate community can fall victim to these crimes due to a perceived display of affluence, or by not following sound personal security practices. However, one emerging element of the criminal threat in 2019 is violence stemming from gang rivalries and extortion occurring in areas where members of the expat community congregate (e.g. malls). Further, acts of extreme violence employing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have occurred against public transportation and business in an attempt to extort targeted individuals. According to official statistics released by the National Board of Tourist Assistance (PROATUR), there were 176 recorded instances of crimes against tourists in Guatemala in 2019, with approximately 2.6 million registered tourists having visited the country during the year. Below are some examples that illustrate the gravity of the crime threat:

  • On January 21, 2019, at approximately 1045hrs, an IED exploded in the doorway of a public bus traveling through Zone 7 in Guatemala City, located 3.5 miles from the Embassy. Reports indicate the bus driver was the victim of gang-related extortion operations. As retaliation for non-payment, a confirmed associate of the gang Barrio 18, set off an IED approximately the size of a grenade inside the bus. In addition to the perpetrator, five victims went to local hospitals for treatment of injuries.
  • On January 27, 2019, Guatemala National Police rendered safe an IED in Guatemala City eight miles north of the U.S. Embassy. Police said the gang Barrio 18 intended to attack taxi drivers to pressure them into paying extortion fees to the gang. Police arrested one Barrio 18 gang member in connection with the attempt.  
  • On February 26, 2019, at approximately 1230hrs, three third-party contractors working for a U.S. government agency and based in El Salvador reported they were shot at while driving near Rio Dulce.
  • On May 1, 2019, an attempted robbery occurred within a block of the U.S. Ambassador’s residence. Armed security discharged their weapons in response, resulting in injuries to the robbery suspects.
  • On June 9, 2019, at approximately 0130hrs, a 20-year-old local man was shot and killed, and a 15-year-old local boy was seriously wounded in front of a Shell gas station. Authorities arrested two members of Mara Salvatrucha in connection with the shooting. The shooting was the result of targeted gang rivalry and occurred about a kilometer from the construction site of the new U.S. embassy compound.
  • On June 23, 2019 at around 1358 hrs., a U.S. citizen was passing through 32 Av. Calzada Roosevelt in Zone 11 to go shopping at Walmart with a friend. While en route, she was the victim of a robbery which resulted in a gunshot wound to her leg after she refused to comply with the robber's demands.
  • On August 25, 2019 at 1210hrs, the spouse of a U.S. Embassy third party contractor was the victim of an attempted robbery while returning to her apartment complex.
  • On September 20, 2019, at approximately 0430hrs, a triple homicide occurred at a nightclub approximately 575 meters south of the U.S. Embassy.
  • On September 21, 2019, at approximately 0200hrs local time, a U.S. embassy employee was robbed. The incident occurred 700 meters southeast of the U.S. Embassy.

Trends and Analysis

A common trend in the commission of armed robberies is the use of motorcycles by assailants. Typically, two men on a motorcycle accost the driver of a car or pedestrian and demand valuables and cell phones. Often, a second pair of armed individuals accompany the assailants, functioning as lookouts. If the assailants encounter any resistance, they escalate the situation through extreme violence (e.g. stabbings, shootings). The use of motorcycles allows the assailants to flee quickly; police rarely apprehend them. Additionally, pickpockets and purse-snatchers are active in all cities and tourist sites. Petty criminals frequently target high-traffic tourist areas for petty crime. Markets, national parks, crowded venues, and shopping areas are all major areas of operation for criminals. Review OSAC’s report, All That You Should Leave Behind.

Although Guatemala historically has had one of the highest violent crime rates in Central America, the trend has been positive over the past several years. Guatemala’s homicide rate peaked at 45 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2009, but by the end of 2018 had dropped to about 22. In 2018, the police reported 3,881 homicides; a figure slightly higher than the 3,578 homicides reported for 2019. The number of reported missing persons also evinced a slight downward trend, with a total of 2,351 reported cases compared to 2,500 the year prior. RSO uses official police crime statistics for this report. However, the police do not count homicides if the victim left the crime scene alive but subsequently died from injuries elsewhere. INACIF (Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses de Guatemala), the government agency responsible for tracking all deaths in country, shows homicide rates 8-16% higher than police homicide rates.

Despite the slight downward trend, Guatemala remains among the most dangerous countries in the world. Endemic poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal conflict, and the presence of organized criminal gangs Barrio 18 (18th Street) and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) all contribute to violent crime. Guatemala’s alarmingly high murder rate appears driven by narco-trafficking activity, gang-related violence, a heavily armed population, and a police/judicial system unable to hold criminals accountable.

The two primary gangs in Guatemala terrorize businesses and private citizens through targeted extortion attempts. Extortion is incredibly common and effects all sectors of society, with public bus and taxi drivers being the easiest and most common victims. However, local small businesses, the U.S. private sector, and local national employees of the U.S. Embassy were all frequent targets in 2019. The gangs also target schoolchildren, street vendors, and local residents. Although in recent years the number of reported extortions has increased, most incidents go unreported and there is uncertainty about the true magnitude of the problem. Further complicating the widespread issue of extortion is the presence of persons who imitate gang members in order to threaten and receive extortion payments despite not belonging to gangs. Gang members usually punish non-compliant victims with violent assault or murder, and victimize their family members as punishment. A total of 89 extortion-related homicides were reported in 2019.

While extortion activity is often associated with the transport sector and the receipt of extortion payments from bus drivers, extortion threats are also reported in other commercial sections such as restaurant and store owners. Further, the number and type and extortion victims has increased through the use of social media in recent years. Gangs members and imitators will use various types of social media to threaten their targets and receive extortion payments. PNC reported 14,714 cases of extortion in 2019. The following is a breakdown of victim types and number of cases:

  • Houses - 8,009
  • Business - 5,205
  • Persons - 665
  • Bus company running outside metropolitan area - 268
  • Taxi - 173
  • Transportation provider - 95
  • Schools - 86
  • Bus company running in metropolitan areas - 84
  • Trailer truck - 38
  • Other - 36
  • Unknown victim - 21
  • Prison - 10
  • Bus school - 9
  • Hospital - 7
  • Government Office - 3
  • Church - 3
  • Musical group - 2

 

Home invasions by armed groups continue to occur in upscale neighborhoods. There were 511 reported residential robberies in 2018 compared to 628 in 2017, an 18% reduction. Statistics from 2019 point to a further downward trend with a total of 422 cases reported to the PNC. Thieves gain access by enticing a resident to open the door for a delivery or rushing in when family or staff open the door. Another commonly held belief is that household staff could be complicit in home invasions. Review OSAC’s reports, Hotels: The Inns and Outs and Considerations for Hotel Security.

According to official government crime statistics, sexual assault numbers slightly decreased from 527 in 2018 to 460 in 2019. Most reported victims were female (435; 167 adults and 268 under-age). The Embassy believes, however, that the actual numbers of sexual assaults, including against foreigners, are far greater; cultural stigmas and sporadic police presence in rural areas cause significant underreporting.

According to Guatemalan government statistics, from January 1 to November 30, 2019, the Public Ministry received 320 reports of suspected human trafficking. The majority (150) occurred in Guatemala City. These reported numbers for 2019 represent an increase from the year prior, when only 116 cases were reported in the capital.

Other Areas of Concern

A particularly serious concern in less-developed regions of the country is vigilantism, including stoning, lynching, and immolation. Police in remote areas are often understaffed and poorly equipped, and will not typically interfere in deterring vigilantism out of fear for their own safety. The lack of police presence in rural communities, as well as the enduring influence of the traditional indigenous justice system, can result in villages taking justice into their own hands, resulting in brutal attacks and deaths. Local populations often block roads leading into and out of their towns after an incident in an attempt to catch the perpetrators and subject them to vigilante justice.

In March 2019, Mixco residents caught two males attempting to escape on a motorcycle after shooting a taxi driver. The event was described as extortion-related violence. After residents caught the two suspects, they assaulted them and then set them on fire.

Rural communities have also increasingly taken over their local municipalities through road blockades or in some cases, holding elected local officials hostage until demands are met. In January 2019, more than 200 police officers became isolated in the town of El Naranjo, located in an extremely remote area of Peten only accessible by ferry. Local residents seized control of the only ferry after police arrested four local residents. Another group of residents blocked the only road leading to the town, preventing police and military from responding to the incident. The locals also threatened to burn down the police station. The residents freed the officers only after the police released the detained individuals.

Cybersecurity Issues

Review OSAC’s reports, Cybersecurity Basics, Best Practices for Maximizing Security on Public Wi-Fi, Traveling with Mobile Devices: Trends & Best Practices, and Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband?

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Overall Road Safety Assessment: Fair

Urban road conditions/maintenance: Fair

Rural road conditions/maintenance: Fair to poor

Availability of roadside/ambulance assistance: Fair to poor

For the period January-November 2019, the Observatorio de Transito de Guatemala reported 6,510 motor-vehicle accidents, 1,585 deaths, and 8,194 injuries.

Drivers will encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the U.S., and vary widely across the country, with more development within urban areas. The transportation infrastructure diminishes rapidly the further motorists travel from the capital. Many city streets have lighting, although poor, but secondary and rural roads have little to no illumination. Among the risk to motorists are local drivers passing blindly on winding roads, poorly designed surfaces, unmarked hazards, landslides, and precarious temporary highway repairs.

Traffic congestion in urban areas and the highways leading out of the capital is extremely heavy, and severely impacts travel time between destinations. Traffic is often at a standstill for hours at a time; such congestion exacerbates the threat to motorists from armed criminals on motorcycles. Use vehicles with all windows tinted. Criminals often look for drivers using cell phones at night and easily identify their targets due to the illumination of smartphones or tablets.

Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety Abroad, Driving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad.

Emboldened armed robbers sometimes attack vehicles on main roads in broad daylight. Travel on rural roads increases the risk of encountering a criminal roadblock or ambush. Driving outside of urban areas at night is dangerous and not recommended. Avoid intercity travel after dark, as it is extremely dangerous. Caravan with at least two cars when traveling outside of Guatemala City. The Inter-American Highway (CA-1) and the road from Guatemala City to the Caribbean coast (CA-9) are especially dangerous due to heavy traffic, including large trucks and trailers, and poorly maintained vehicles that often lack properly functioning lights. The main road to Lake Atitlán via the Inter-American Highway (CA-1) and Sololá is safer than the alternative secondary roads near the lake.

In the recent past, armed attacks occurred on roads between Guatemala City and Petén, as well as between Tikal and the Belize border. Plan and research routes prior to departing for your destination. Although many GPS applications work in Guatemala, they may not reflect road conditions accurately. Roads and routes identified on a GPS may be nothing more than a poorly built dirt road accessible only by 4x4 vehicles. GPS applications trying to minimize travel times can also route drivers through gang-controlled neighborhoods.

Travelers must also be aware of the high frequency of demonstrations/protests in Guatemala. A number of highly organized groups are capable of drawing thousands of people to support their cause. One of the most common demonstration tactics is the blocking of major routes throughout the country. The most successful groups have blocked up to 30 major routes at once – bringing the country’s road network to a standstill. A good resource for updated information regarding traffic concerns throughout Guatemala is PROVIAL, a roadside assistance force that routinely tweets significant issues related to accidents, traffic conditions and road blockades.  

Drivers in Guatemala must remain on the defensive, as the local population only casually observes traffic rules. Drivers frequently ignore speed limits, lane markings, and stop signs. Many drivers do not use their turn signals. Instead, a common custom is for an occupant to stick a hand out the window and wave to indicate a turn or lane change. Drivers often drive at the maximum speed their vehicle can handle. The quality of vehicles on the road ranges from high-end luxury to barely functioning vehicles that would not pass U.S. safety inspections. A lack of proper sidewalks and crosswalks force pedestrians to walk on the roadway or attempt to cross roads even in heavy traffic.

Motorcycles are the most popular form of transportation in Guatemala; motorcycle operators do not take safety precautions in many cases, weaving in and out of traffic with seemingly little regard for their own safety. It is common to see entire families, including small children, traveling on one motorcycle without any safety equipment. Many people also use motorcycles to transport large cargo. Many motorcyclists do not have functioning lights and can be difficult to see at night.

Cars and trucks often stall or park in the middle of the road. Drivers often place tree branches in the road before a stalled vehicle to warn approaching traffic of a hazard. It is against the law to turn right on red unless otherwise posted, and drivers must yield when entering a traffic circle. Motorists must wear seat belts. It is against the law for drivers to operate cellular phones while driving, although this is not enforced.

Many motorists commonly drive under the influence of alcohol. Law enforcement will arrest people found driving under the influence of alcohol/drugs and offenders may serve jail time, but it does not deter the amount of drunk driving taking place in Guatemala. This risk further increases in small towns and rural areas away from population centers.

Minor traffic incidents can escalate quickly to violence. Many motorists carry machetes and other weapons, including firearms in their vehicles. Police may detain drivers involved in accidents resulting in injury, holding them in protective custody pending investigation. Such cases require the assistance of private local attorneys.

There are no roadside assistance clubs in Guatemala. However, PROVIAL patrols most major highways; contact them by calling 1520 from a local phone. Their vehicles are equipped with basic tools and first aid supplies, and their services are free. Police patrol major roadways sporadically and may assist travelers. For roadside assistance, call the police at 110 or 120 or the fire department at 122 or 123. Cellular telephone service covers most areas tourists frequent. Some reports of highway robberies include accusations that police, or assailants dressed as police, have been involved.

Public Transportation Conditions

Safety of public transportation: Poor

The most common mode of public transportation in Guatemala is the network of informal bus lines. These bus routes are serviced by brightly colored, poorly maintained, recycled U.S.-style school buses. Driver qualification levels vary, creating an untenable safety situation. Additionally, these bus lines are prime targets for extortions and robberies. Criminals habitually assault and murder bus drivers because of non-compliance with extortion demands. The official U.S. government community in Guatemala is NOT allowed to use public buses as a means of transportation.

Taxis are also unsafe. Unlicensed taxis and taxi companies serve metropolitan areas. The U.S. government prohibits its personnel present in Guatemala from hailing taxis on the street. Taxi drivers can be targeted for or complicit in criminal activity. Taxi Amarillo Express is a radio-dispatch taxi service accessible at 1766 on a mobile phone. Reach Taxi Seguro at 2312-4243; it may not always be available, especially late at night.

Uber operates in Guatemala City, Antigua, and some other urban areas. RSO considers Uber a reliable source of transportation, and U.S. government personnel may use the service. It is important to note, however, that local taxi operators do not support Uber and have engaged in physical confrontations with Uber drivers. In 2019, one Uber driver was shot while in his vehicle in the vicinity of Oakland Mall; the motives for the crime are unknown, but the incident further highlights the local crime risk. RSO recommends waiting in a secure location for an available Uber; expect the driver to request that a passenger ride in the front seat to mask the appearance of being a car service.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

La Aurora International Airport (GUA) offers direct flights to/from the United States. On occasion, the airport temporarily shuts down due to severe weather and/or volcanic activity. However, flights on major commercial airlines face few issues other than delays and re-routing.

La Aurora is in Zone 13, which the latest Travel Advisory assesses at Level 3, indicating that travelers should reconsider travel to the area. Remain cautious when leaving the airport, as assailants may steal money, passports, or luggage. In some cases, taxi drivers rob travelers of their possessions. RSO recommends that travelers make transportation arrangements to and from the airport ahead of time using pre-screened, vetted transportation services, including Uber. A pre-screened, vetted taxi service is available at the airport. Travelers can hire a vetted driver at the kiosk under the “SAFE” sign. In the past, assailants have worn full/partial police uniforms and have used vehicles that resemble police vehicles, indicating that some elements of the police might be involved.

Small, privately owned aircraft present a number of safety concerns. Since 2015, the Civilian Aviation Authority investigated over 35 small aircraft accidents. Accidents involve both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. Maintenance for these aircraft in Guatemala does not meet International Standardization Organization (ISO) requirements. Operators of small aircraft could be poorly trained and inexperienced. U.S. government personnel in Guatemala may not use Guatemalan-owned rotary winged aircraft as a means of travel.

Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Terrorism Threat

The U.S. Department of State has assessed POST as being a LOW-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. There are no known transnational or domestic terrorist organizations present in Guatemala.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Civil Unrest

The U.S. Department of State has assessed POST as being a MEDIUM-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Large demonstrations occur, sometimes with little/no notice, and can cause serious traffic disruptions. Although most demonstrations are peaceful, they can turn violent. The use of roadblocks and/or blocking of public facilities, including the international airport, may delay or prevent tourists from reaching their destination. Pro- and anti-government demonstrations continued throughout 2019 but were peaceful. A notable example was the massive January 2019 protest against the removal of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (referred to as CICIG). A demonstration also occurred in front of the U.S. Embassy in advance of a visit by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. RSO expects demonstrations to continue after the new government of President Giammattei officially begins. Avoid any demonstration you encounter. Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Guatemala is a geologically and climatologically active and dynamic country prone to seismic activity, volcanic eruptions, severe and unpredictable weather, and unstable terrain. General information about natural disaster preparedness is available locally from the National Disaster Reduction Coordination Office (CONRED) and from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Guatemala lies on a major fault line known as the Motagua/Chixoy-Polochic fault complex (the convergence of the Caribbean and North American plates). In 2019, Guatemala’s National Institute of Seismology and Volcanology registered 3,411 seismic events, 85 of which were seismic movements measuring 3.5 or higher. Guatemala has experienced a number of historically significant earthquakes above 7.0.

Guatemala has three active volcanoes: Pacaya, Santiaguito, and Fuego. Fuego Volcano, located about 25 miles southwest of Guatemala City, last erupted in June 2018. The eruption was Fuego’s largest since 1974, and included a partial collapse of the crater. As a result, volcanic material reached areas considered safe under existing eruption scenarios. CONRED reportsthat eruptions of Fuego Volcano and subsequent pyroclastic flows and lahars have caused at least 188 deaths, left 240 people missing, temporarily displaced nearly 13,000 people, and impacted more than 1.7 million more. Since the eruption, the U.S. Government has supplemented Guatemala’s effort to assist displaced persons and is helping develop a lahar observation early warning notification system in order to mitigate the threats of deadly lahar mudslides that often follow volcanic eruptions.  

INGUAT organized an active community-based tourism program in San Vicente Pacaya to minimize the risk of armed robbery or mishap on Pacaya. Climbing volcanoes in groups and with a guide is still highly advisable to reduce the risk of assault and to mitigate the dangers of volcanic and weather conditions. Visiting Guatemala’s picturesque volcanoes can be dangerous for even experienced climbers. As recently as 2017, six experienced expatriate climbers, accompanied by qualified guides, died due to exposure on the summit of the Acatenango volcano.

Flooding, mudslides, and landslides pose a major risk to urban and rural areas alike. Mudslides can easily overcome the poor road infrastructure. Drivers must exercise extreme caution and patience during these periods. Landslides and flooding have destroyed entire communities.

Review OSAC’s report, Central America Natural Disaster Emergency Planning: OSAC Guidance and Resources; and read FEMA’s Earthquake page, Drop Cover Hold On, the Red Cross Earthquake Preparedness, and Terremotos, a California-specific site containing useful guidance in Spanish for earthquake preparedness.

Migration Crisis

According to the Directorate of Migration, the United States deported 54,160 Guatemalans back to their home country in 2019, an increase of 2,784 from the year prior. Throughout 2019, the Guatemalan and U.S. governments worked closely on immigration issues including the Safe Third Country Agreement. This bilateral work between both nations has at times been the source of protests in the capital.

Critical Infrastructure

Guatemala has a number of infrastructure concerns. Basic services, road infrastructure, emergency services, and medical services barely meet the needs of the still-growing population. The government has an extremely limited capacity to respond to chemical/industrial accidents, and small incidents typically go unreported. The government is also very limited in its technical ability to monitor watershed runoff or air pollution from industrial processes, the most controversial being mining.

Economic Concerns

The U.S.-Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement provides for improved standards for the protection and enforcement of a broad range of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) consistent with U.S. standards of protection and enforcement, as well as emerging international standards. Enforcement of IPR laws, however, has been inconsistent. Authorities have pursued a number of raids, cases, and prosecutions; however, resource constraints and lack of coordinated government action impede efficient enforcement efforts. Piracy of copyright-protected works and infringement of other forms of intellectual property such as trademarks, including those of some major U.S. food and pharmaceutical brands remains problematic. However, economic espionage does not appear to be a major problem.

Guatemala has one of the world’s highest rates of income inequality. More than half the population lives in poverty, and the poverty rate has increased since 2006. The creation of new jobs is not keeping pace with the country’s young population, half of which is under the age of 25. Guatemala consistently ranks low in terms of ease of doing business due to a history of corruption, weak enforcement of laws, and poor infrastructure.

Personal Identity Concerns

Women should be especially careful when traveling alone. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for female travelers.

Guatemalan law does not extend specific antidiscrimination protections to LGBTI+ individuals. Efforts to pass laws against discrimination, including a Gender Identity Law, encountered severe opposition among legislators. According to LGBTI+ activists, gay and transgender individuals often experience police abuse. The local NGO National Network for Sexual Diversity and HIV and the Lambda Association reported that from April 20 through November 11, 2018 19 LGBTI+ persons were killed, including several transgender individuals the NGOs believed to have been targeted specifically due to their sexual orientation. In May 2019, a parade in Guatemala City celebrated the International Day against Homophobia. While the event transpired without any major violent incidents, many who participated highlighted that 17 homicides against members of the LGBTI+ community had already occurred in 2019, signaling an increasing trend from 2018. Disaggregated police data that captures crimes targeting persons who identify as gay or transgender is currently not available. Thus, it is difficult to determine the true severity of this issue. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.

Except for major hotels, some government buildings and major museums that have access ramps for people with disabilities, most buildings remain inaccessible. Mayan ruins such as Tikal do not provide access for disabled people. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Drug-related Crimes

The bulk of narcotics-related crimes occur near the Mexican border region. Guatemalan criminal organizations usurp the territories of the more emboldened Mexican cartels. Narco-traffickers are heavily armed and operate with relative impunity. Limited Guatemalan resources make it difficult to combat narcotics trafficking problems.

Although there is widespread trafficking in Guatemala, most activity does not affect the general populace. There have been instances of homicides near clandestine airfields and areas in Petén near the Mexican border, particularly along CA-13 between La Libertad and El Ceibo. Narco-traffickers tend to avoid confrontation without provocation. The Guatemalan government reported the seizure of nearly eleven tons of cocaine in 2019.

The watershed event of 2019 was the murder of three Guatemalan military members on September 3 in Izabal department by a group considered to be linked to drug trafficking. In the wake of the murders, President Jimmy Morales declared a state of siege in several departments and municipalities throughout the country. Just a few weeks after declaring the state of siege, the Interior Minister reported that cocaine was being produced in the country, and that Guatemala is no longer just a transit point for drug shipments.

Of particular concern to businesses and landowners in remote regions of Guatemala is the threat of narco-traffickers forcibly seizing land to facilitate the landing and offloading of aircraft transporting large amounts of cocaine. Heavily armed narco-traffickers invade properties, restrain all residents and/or employees, and clear an area to land aircraft. Narco-traffickers then release the families and employees and depart the area after offloading all drugs onto transport vehicles.

Kidnapping Threat

Kidnappings are not as prevalent in Guatemala now as in the past. Given the complexity of kidnapping and police attention to this type of crime, kidnapping is not as viable a criminal enterprise as extortion. The kidnappings that do occur involve drug traffickers. In these instances, narco-traffickers will use brutal force to extort, kidnap, and kill victims. Some kidnapping groups kill their victims regardless of a paid ransom. In 2018, the police recorded 28 legitimate kidnappings while 17 were reported for 2019. Review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics.

Police Response

Over the past year, the national police continued to be debilitated by mass firings of senior officers. The uncertainty caused by the recurring dismissals hurt morale and thrust lower level, less experienced officers into senior positions ahead of schedule. Amid this weakening of the institution from within, there have been spikes in violent crime in Guatemala’s red zones even as the nationwide murder totals have decreased.

The police lack sufficient personnel and training to accomplish their mission. They suffer from a lack of supplies (e.g. vehicles, fuel, and ammunition) with little improvement from year to year. Police investigations often fail to result in an arrest, much less a conviction. Apart from impunity, a principal reason that the government is unable to respond to the needs of crime victims, or to prevent crime in the first place, is that the police force significantly lacks training and funding. The average officer should have at least a high school degree (but often has much less), has as little as six months of police training before being sent out on the streets, and receives only $535 per month as salary. Moreover, the annual police budget is inadequate to support its personnel, vehicles, training, and other infrastructure needs. Although some units have adequate equipment and training, they do not have the capacity to handle multiple taskings or cases at the same time.

Victims of crime should contact the following phone numbers for assistance: Police (911 equivalent): 110 or 120; Fire Department: 122 or 123. Download the State Department’s Crime Victims Assistance brochure.

Tourist groups should request security escorts. Security escorts for tourist groups and security information are available from the Tourist Assistance Office (PROATUR) of the Guatemalan Tourism Institute (INGUAT) at 7a Avenida 1-17, Zona 4, Centro Cívico, Guatemala City. PROATUR division is available 24/7 for tourist assistance and emergencies: Reach them at +502-2421-2810 or 1500, or by email.

Medical Emergencies

A wide range of medical care is available in Guatemala City, but medical care outside the city is limited. Public hospitals frequently experience serious shortages of basic medicines and equipment. Care in private hospitals is generally adequate for most common illnesses and injuries, and many of the medical specialists are U.S. trained and certified. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services, although most private hospitals accept major U.S. credit cards. Refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance page.

There are some aerial medical evacuation (medevac) services in Guatemala. However, these services are extremely expensive and frequently require payment before rendering service. Serious medical problems requiring hospitalization and/or medical evacuation to the United States can be costly. The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Department’s webpage on insurance overseas.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

Zika Virus is present in Guatemala. The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Guatemala. Review OSAC’s reports, The Healthy Way, Traveling with Medication, I’m Drinking What in My Water?, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, Health 101: How to Prepare for Travel, and Fire Safety Abroad

OSAC Country Council Information

The Country Council in Guatemala City is active, meeting bi-monthly. Additionally, the Guatemala Country Council hosts a Northern Triangle-focused OSAC conference every spring. Interested private-sector security representatives should contact OSAC’s Latin America Team, or the Country Council’s Public-Sector Co-Chair or Private-Sector Co-Chair with any questions.

U.S. Embassy Contact Information

Avenida Reforma 7-01, Zona 10, Ciudad de Guatemala

Business hours: 0800-1700 Monday-Thursday; 0800-1200 Fridays

Tel: +502-2326-4000; Emergency after-hours: +502-2331-2354

American Citizen Services e-mail: AmCitsGuatemala@state.gov

Website: http://gt.usembassy.gov

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

 

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