Guatemala's murder rate down, despite talk of 'failed state'

The murder rate, if it holds steady for this year, will be lower than when President Álvaro Colom took office in 2008. Yet he has not capitalized on this ahead of the Sept. 11 election.

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters
Former Gen. Otto Perez Molina, presidential candidate for the Patriot Party (PP), is ahead of polls in Guatemala, in large part because his get-tough-on-crime rhetoric resonates with voters.

I know that I got a couple of angry voice mails the last time I said this, but the number of murders committed so far this year in Guatemala is down from the same period last year.

Initially, Prensa Libre reported that murders increased during the first seven months of 2011 compared to the first seven months of 2010. A few days later, however, they had to retract that headline to instead read that murders actually declined. Oops.

During the first seven months of 2011, 3,366 people were murdered. While that number is still alarmingly high, it is down from the 3,434 murders committed during the same period in 2010. If the numbers remain steady for the rest of the year, Guatemala will finish the year with roughly 40 homicides per 100,000 people.

This rate would be lower than what it was the first year that President Álvaro Colom took office when Guatemala had a murder rate of 43 per 100,000 in 2008 and much better than 2009 which had a rate of 46 per 100,000.

Now again, it's not to say that things are rosy in Guatemala. We know that they are not. And focusing on the total numbers of murders might not be the best way to measure citizen insecurity or to assess the effectiveness of the current government in combating crime. However, this is where President Colom and his wife really are to blame for not having a candidate to represent the coalition of UNE-GANA, two of the country's largest political parties.

They have no candidate out there talking about how 2008 and 2009 were terrible in terms of the country's murder rate, that 2010's murder rate improved slightly, and that the improvement seems to be continuing this year.

Maybe then there could have been a serious discussion of what has and has not been working over the last twenty-four months. Is police training working? Is the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) working? Are people and businesses paying extortion fees and no longer being killed? Or are the numbers wrong and have the police been incorrectly counting the number of murder victims?

Instead, Guatemala has a bunch of candidates and political parties demonstrating how tough they can be on an out-of-control crime situation and an international community ready to call Guatemala a failed state because of the escalating levels of violence in the country at exactly the moment that the murder rate is improving. Again, the murder rate is just one measure of crime. You would want some multidimensional measure of crime to better measure overall crime. And the Mutual Support Group (GAM) is always quick to say that it is not just the number of murders but their gruesomeness that is really sickening.

Unfortunately, if you want to find a country where the murder rate appears to be going up you only have to look south to El Salvador. As a result of a violent August, murders are up nearly 2 percent from the same period last year. As of last week, 2,755 Salvadorans had been murdered in a country with about one-third the population of Guatemala.

--- Mike Allison is an assistant professor in the Political Science Department and a member of the Latin American and Women's Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. You can follow his Central American Politics blog here.

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