Friday, January 6, 2012

Guatemala murder rates (1995-2011)

Here's the Colom administration tooting its own horn. Maybe now people will ask why is the murder rate going down rather than up?
  • Is the decrease the result of effective government policies (e.g., better policing, less corruption, more police, etc.)?
  • Is the decrease the result of the state's withdrawal from certain conflict-prone areas of the country or the consolidation of power by local gangs and transnational criminal networks?
  • Have Guatemalans somehow changed the way they behave (don't go out at night, pay extortion) so as to avoid death?
  • Was the murder decline simply the result of a successful state of siege in Alta Verapaz rather than broad-based success?
I don't think anybody actually knows why the rate has gone down two years in a row. Partly that's because they've been asking why it has been going up. That's why I had a hard time taking many of their analyses seriously.

People would keep writing about a security situation spiraling out of control by presenting 2009's horrific murder statistics and/or they would neglect evidence that a decline in murders had been occurring over the last 24 months. Prensa Libre would support its Murders Continue headline with evidence that the murder rate in Coatepeque, Quetzaltenango had dropped 25%. There was also all the reporting that 2011 election cycle was the "most violent" in recent history with 43 dead in campaign-related killings. However, a US CRS Report to Congress reported 56 dead in 2007. Likewise, an EU report claimed over 50 dead in 2007. While 2011's election might have been more violent than those of the past, using statistics on the number of murders committed during the campaigns did not support that conclusion. Then there was El Periodico's October reporting of a sharp increase in the murder rate when its number showed the opposite.

Anyway, here's one possible explanation for the decline in murders that I haven't heard in a while. In Wikileaks cable from May 2008, Carlos Castresana told the US Embassy that he thought 25% of the murders in the country had been of the extrajudicial killing variety. Perhaps the government hasn't been as effective at reducing murders carried out by criminal elements. They've only been successful at reducing the number of murders committed by on-duty and off-duty security personnel. Maybe someone who is in the country can ask "people in the know."


  1. I think these posts of yours are some of the most important on Central America in a long time. Asking the right questions about murder rates is something the media, at least, are not doing-- here, in El Salvador, or in Honduras. For example, US media "explain" Honduran murder rates in terms of drug violence-- but notably lacking are the documented drug war murders as in Mexico. Extrajudicial killings, now, those are clearly there...

  2. Thanks RAJ. I just wish I had more answers rather than questions. I don't want to write so much on violence, but I've just found the coverage of Central America, Guatemala in particular, confusing and/or terrible.

    While some Honduran murders are obviously the result of drug trafficking, I think that what separates Honduras from El Salvador, and maybe even Guatemala, is the large number of politically motivated extrajudicial killings of "anti-coup" (journalists, resistance members, etc.) and land activists.

    And from what I understand/hear, drug trafficking through Honduras increased dramatically during and after the 2009 coup when traffickers sensed weakness.

    How is the Honduran media covering the upsurge in murders? Explaining it away as the result of turf battle between various gangs and drug trafficking organizations?

  3. Mike- Thanks for covering this important topic. I live in Guatemala and remain puzzled as well. The feeling is that the crime and murder rate has remained high. I have lived here for just these three years, so I can't guess perception of violence pre-Colom presidency. I was here when Rosenberg was killed and horrified at the New Yorker in depth piece. As you suggest, data and facts are rarely generated or promoted by dis-interested parties.
    Here in the Capital City all levels of crime are out of control. To blame the drug lords or the former continuous civil war misses the point.
    All levels of criminality have become a way of life. Particularly for the poor. It reminds me of the urban problems in the USA during the 1960's. Too many adolescent males with too much free time and inadequate supervision.
    My concern about the theory of vigilantism perpetrated by the government is that will always be a point of view based on promoting one or the other political parties.
    I am not an expert in analyzing the data, but it seems that when ordinary middle class and poor people are dying and victims of crime, it is hard to believe a government's claim of success.
    A friend of mine just introduced me to your site. Thank you for the fine work you do!

  4. Santiago,

    Thanks. I've been surprised that following the release of 2011's murder statistics, the media just keeps repeating how out of control the murder situation is. There's been very little, if any, attempt to reconcile the declining murder rate with the increased perception of insecurity. Good luck in Guatemala City and stay safe.