Is Guatemala Safe? What Some Guatemalans Think About Safety and Rights

Safety in Guatemala

***The following is an article about safety living in Antigua Guatemala.

If you’re planning on traveling here, also check out this article about Antigua Guatemala safety (new window).***

How would you respond if you were living in a foreign country and heard that thieves broke into a nearby house, poisoned all the neighbor’s dogs, all to steal the clothes in their closet?

Or what if thieves strolled into your “secure” gated condo in their vehicle, in broad daylight, and forced their way into three empty homes, calmly taking any belongings they liked? All while the “security guard,” pleading ignorance because he was at the corner grocery store drinking Coke and munching on Tortrix (the cultural equivalent of potato chips in Guatemala), happened to be away at the exact time window the robbery happened?

I’m not on edge, but recent events in our neighborhood have made me think about security in Guatemala… again. Try as I might, it seems one can’t get away from the topic. But how do Guatemalans view this issue? What’s their reaction to crime?

I got a glimpse of it during the neighborhood meeting that ensued after a rash of robberies put our sleepy gated condo on edge. And coming from a law enforcement background and who’s well aware of the Bill of Rights in the US, their response surprised me a bit. But first some background:

How Guatemalans View the Safety Issue

I often get questions about Antigua Guatemala’s safety, which I’ve written about in the past (click to open a new window). It’s my view that how secure or insecure you feel here will come down to what your background is and how accustomed you are to being mindful of your surroundings – aka your “street smarts.”

Having lived up and down the East Coast in the US, I can tell you it’s a lot different to live in Passaic, New Jersey (478 out of 490, one of the worst cities in NJ when it comes to crime) than it is to live in the sleepy suburb of Middleton, Massachusetts, where the crime rate is two-thirds lower than the national average.

Safety in Guatemala

Having bars on every window seem to be a must in Guatemala

Is Guatemala Safe?

But… what do Guatemalans think about security in their country? It turns out it’s very much in their mind.

Ask any Guatemalan if they, or a close family member, has been a victim of a crime. Invariably, they’ll rattle off some brushes they’ve experienced with crime, some probably recent. Heck, I’m still ticked off that my new bicycle was stolen in broad daylight.

In a survey published by Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre (click for infographic – in Spanish) 52% of Guatemalans decried “lack of security” as their primary concern, 35% cited economic concerns (high cost of living, unemployment, extreme poverty, and low salaries), while corruption came at a very low 3%. How does this impact the average tourist or future expat in Guatemala? It depends.

Much of the crime in Guatemala happens in its capital, Guatemala City. For the most part, the government does a good job of protecting tourists. Now, this doesn’t mean visitors are immune from crime. Petty theft and violent crime do happen, even in and around Antigua – especially if you don’t heed the advice that would apply anywhere else in the world, like:

  • “Don’t get drunk and wander into dark alleys late at night.”
  • “Don’t flash cash or expensive equipment around people you don’t know.”
  • “Be careful walking about in remote wooded areas on your own without a machete-wielding guide.”

Don’t make yourself a target and you’ll be okay and have a splendid time here.

But what about expat life? Those of us who have settled here? How do we protect ourselves? That’s an uncomfortable question I’m often forced to ask myself.

How Guatemalans Go About Protecting Themselves

After last week’s neighborhood robbery, it seems residents had had enough. A big meeting was called for last Sunday evening. I usually tend to skip those, but had I known things were going to get that interesting; I would’ve attended.

Here are the most important points that were made in the meeting, according to the wife, who was present, and my observations:

1. No private security company would be hired.

It seems that nobody in Guatemala fully trusts the people they’re paying money to protect them. Whenever something like this happens, the first people suspected are the security guards. After all, they know who is in or out and what their schedule looks like. In our condo’s case, the gatekeeper – the one who conveniently vanished right as the crimes were happening – was fired on the spot. He wasn’t arrested because Police lacked proof he was involved, but he had to be gone. (I later found out the man who did odd jobs around the condo was the culprit – he scoped out houses and passed along the info to accomplices).

The security detail for our community are local guys – we often run into them outside the condo when they’re off duty. We ran into the same guy who was fired just a couple of days before – he sat behind us on the chicken bus. Yeah, it’s going to be awkward if we run into him again.

Now, what about a professional outfit, like bulletproof vest wearing, quasi-military companies like Grupo Golan? According to the neighbors, they’re even worse. Because these are professional guys, they’re more likely to dabble in extortion plots and kidnapping, they argued. I don’t know the likelihood of a private security guard going rogue, but I did find one such case regarding extortion by one of their agents (article in Spanish). Police Officers here are routinely involved in extortion plots, so why would private companies be different?

“Coincidentally,” someone from Golan had just happened to drop a bunch of leaflets offering their services a week before the incident happened, something that I had never seen before. What are the odds the two events being wholly and entirely unrelated? It certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the neighbors.

So basically, they’ll continue to underpay gatekeepers – less than minimum wage, which is illegal – and trust them with their homes when they’re away. Sounds like a brilliant plan :: eye roll::

2. More cameras will be installed.

A plan was hatched, and now neighbors are expected to pitch in Q200 per household by the end of the week to install additional cameras. Right, because the ones already at the gate worked so well.

In fact, there WERE cameras and monitors set up to watch over the gate. Unfortunately, they happened not to be working that morning. Such a shame, I know. That fired gatekeeper must have the worst luck in the world, be truly incompetent, or more likely, quite sneaky. Who will watch the watchers? No one thought to ask, apparently.

3. Random searches by a private investigator.

This one got my blood boiling and has me ready for a showdown at next Sunday’s meeting. So I’m supposed to allow a private investigator, a total stranger of the HOAs choosing, to come into my house and look through my stuff? How would they even know what’s mine and what isn’t? Of course, the consensus at the meeting seemed to be “Hey, if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about, right?” And unbelievably, people appeared to be OK with this!

“Over my dead body will they come and root around my house,” I said to the wife when she told me this.

“But if you don’t, that’ll cause more trouble!” she said.

“What kind of trouble? Don’t they need a court order to search a house?” I replied.

“They can call Police and get us in trouble. It’s not like it’ll be your DPI (Guatemalan ID Card) that will be on file!” She was becoming agitated.

“On file for what? On what grounds??? What charges???” I countered.

And on and on it went. I was thisclose to sleeping on the sofa after that one.

Afterward, I went on a searching spree online. Does there a exist a Guatemalan Bill of Rights? More specifically, I wanted to know if  there was something in the law here like the Fourth Amendment in the US, which states:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

It turns out there is! Article 23 of the Guatemalan Constitution reads as follows:

“Article 23 -. Inviolability of the home. The property is inviolable. No one can enter another person’s home without permission of the occupant, except from the competent judge in the matter of diligence and never specified before six or eighteen hours after order. Such diligence is always conducted with the person concerned or his authorized representative.”

Unless there’s a court order, issued by a judge, not even an owner can enter a renter’s property without the renter’s consent – as long as the renter has a signed contract and is in good standing. Something to keep in your back pocket in case you run into a meddlesome landlord.

Of course, the subject of weapons in the home was discussed and pros and cons, as well as the finer points of “self-defense” law. This is something I’m now kicking myself for having missed.

So, What Do We Do?

Right now, we’re watching and waiting. Fortunately, one of us is home most of the time, so it would be hard for someone to sneak into our home. We’ll probably end up moving before year’s end anyway. We’ve been here for about a year and a half without incident, but it feels like it’ll only be a matter of time the longer we stay.

For one, I’m now very aware why there’s a need for bars on windows – fire hazard be damned – on even the poshest of residential neighbors. And if you think this doesn’t happen in better communities in Antigua, think again. Coincidentally, a friend had told me about a similar rash of robberies in a popular expat neighborhood inside Antigua proper (name withheld).

It’s not all sunshine and roses in “the land of eternal spring.” Make safety a priority if moving to Antigua Guatemala.


What’s your experience regarding safety in Guatemala?

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Published by Rich Polanco

Fan of dogs + all things tech. Love a great pizza. My goal is not to travel to every country in the world. I only want to get to know my favorite ones REALLY well. Check out the big bio here. Follow @RichPolanco and connect on Facebook. Currently exploring: Guatemala.

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