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Located in Central America's Northern Triangle, Guatemala is a natural chokepoint for the flow of illicit goods, particularly drugs moving from producer countries in South America to markets in North America. Political changes and the ebb and flow of the regional war on drugs during the past two decades have resulted in violent organized crime becoming entrenched in the daily life of the country's major cities. Some of the world's most violent criminal gangs now operate with relative freedom in Guatemala City, including the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, a local gang from the city's troubled Zone 18. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Guatemala's murder rate in 2018 was the 15th-highest in the world, with 27.26 homicides per 100,000 residents.
Travelers to Guatemala City should note that the extreme violence associated with crime isn't limited to illicit drug activity. It trickles down to opportunistic crimes, such as robbery, which often affect visitors even in relatively safe areas. In fact, no area of the city is immune to criminal activity, not even upscale residential and commercial neighborhoods. Because of this, those living in or visiting Guatemala City should always take steps to minimize their vulnerability by moving in groups, using only trusted transportation providers, and practicing heightened situational awareness and caution after dark. More overt security measures, such as armed security details, are generally not necessary outside of high-threat areas known locally as red zones. Identifying and avoiding those areas, however, can prove challenging.
Threat information for Guatemala City almost invariably is communicated by zone, a reference to the 25 administrative areas and municipalities that divide the city. Census data shows incidences of homicide and "wounding" are most common in neighboring Mixco and Guatemala City's zones 1, 6, 7 and 18. The homicide rate is highest in zones 1, 3, 6, 8 and 16.
Though the zone data can be useful, its lack of precision presents some problems. The city's divisions are large and diverse. Presenting an entire zone as safe ignores dangerous areas that exist in every sector. Conversely, some zones known to struggle with violence do have some well-developed, relatively safe areas that offer lucrative opportunities. Understanding where the red areas are within those zones and where they are not is as important to principals as it is to their security managers.
Finding this data can also be a challenge. But in Guatemala City, it is available from an unconventional source: Package delivery services, taxi companies and fast-food restaurants that deliver have access to large data sets based on the direct observations of their staffs. Most embassies, nongovernmental organizations and international corporations tend to overlook this treasure trove of knowledge. Not only do local drivers and deliverers interact with residents and businesspeople, they also observe the nature and safety of transit through all areas of the city. This makes their information up to date, comparatively precise and, thanks to the internet, sometimes available globally.
Two examples taken from a parcel delivery service in Guatemala illustrate this point. Zone 14, known as a relatively safe area, is home to diplomatic missions and upscale shopping, yet it contains two red zones. And Zone 18 is not completely prohibitive for local delivery services as one might expect in the home to Barrio 18, one of the world's most violent drug gangs.
This type of information is increasingly common and may be available for any major city globally because mobile phones have increased the ease and quality of reporting and the compilation of geographic data. That said, there are no simple solutions. Data from local sources is only one tool in the box, but it can be incredibly useful if employed properly. Before using such data, however, it is important to assess its quality, consistency and currency. Security managers can and should use these sources to refine their analysis; at no point should it replace common-sense measures to minimize the vulnerability of travelers and others to crime.