Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lessons writing about violence in Guatemala

The Mutual Support Group (GAM) recently posted on Twitter that 170 men and 24 women were assassinated during the first 18 days of February and that the violence does not stop in Guatemala. It's tragic that so many people lose their lives to violence in Guatemala.

However, I responded that, if there numbers were to be believed, that would actually be an improvement over last year's daily murder rate. In 2012, 5,174 people were reported to have been murdered. That's an average daily rate of it 14.14 (it was a leap year). February's average daily murder rate with 194 murders would be 10.77.

Given how violent January was and my reading of the daily papers, I would be surprised, however, if February turned out to be a less violent month.

Lesson 1: Don't say things are getting worse when the numbers you present show an improvement. GAM is correct that violence continues in Guatemala. And there's evidence that it is getting worse. But their numbers indicate the opposite - an improvement.

Lesson 2: GAM does really important work but tracking crime isn't one of them. Don't rely on GAM's homicide statistics. They track murders reported in the media. It's better to rely upon the National Civil Police's murder statistics. I see those as the minimum number of violent deaths in which they have concluded that an actual homicide took place. Look at INACIF's numbers as well but remember that they measure total violent deaths - murders, suicides, and accidental killings. Unfortunately, they change their classifications each year which also makes it difficult to compare year over year changes. Their numbers are more of an upper limit. The number of murders committed in a given year is somewhere between those reported by the PNC and the violent deaths reported by the INACIF.

Lesson 3: Don't look at a two- or three-week window and draw conclusions. There are likely to be very violent, days, weeks, and months as there are to be relatively non-murderous days, weeks, and months. When the daily rate is ~14, recording 8 or 20 in a single day is not unusual.

Lesson 4: The murders of several women, including two children, in January and last week's murder of a prominent woman lawyer are terrible. However, be careful about using high profile murders to generalize about the situation in Guatemala. I said something after the May 2011 Peten massacre. Journalists and others used the massacre to describe Guatemala as a failed state and on the verge of large-scale massacres similar to what had been happening in Mexico. However, 2011 showed an improvement in the country's murder rate and there has yet to be another large-scale massacre in the style of Peten.

Lesson 5: Neither GAM, the PNC, nor INACIF have any idea how many people have gone missing in Guatemala. El Salvador has tried, unsuccessfully really, to grapple with the number of disappeared. And I'm not even sure that Guatemala or Honduras has even tried. It's really important to keep this in mind considering the recently released Human Rights Watch report that I noted this morning. Thousands of Central American migrants have disappeared between their points of departure and the US border. Some were most likely victims in Mexico whereas others most likely disappeared here in Guatemala.

Lesson 6: Tracking the murder rate is not the only way to measure crime in a country. Kidnapping, rape, assault, robbery and extortion are also important. However, each of these crimes tends to be severely under-reported compared to under-reporting on murder so we focus there. Plus, well, murder is murder.

Lesson 7: When I write that the murder rate has been improving or say to step back and look at the big picture, it doesn't mean that I don't hurt every time someone is killed needlessly in Guatemala. I am also not oblivious to the ongoing violence. Even with significant improvements in the national murder rate, the country still suffers from an alarmingly high rate of violence.


  1. Thanks. I should have add that we need to remember that Guatemala is a country with some areas safer than others and vice versa.