Safety and Security
The U.S. Department of State rates the risk/threat of violent crime in Guatemala as “critical”. The Embassy has no reason to believe that U.S. citizens are being specifically targeted, although criminals in Guatemala may assume that U.S. citizens and their relatives have more money than average Guatemalans. Longer-term residents and dual nationals are more likely to become victims of serious crimes, as they are more likely to venture outside of predominantly tourist areas. Tourists seem to be largely shielded from the worst of the violence, and instead are targeted principally by pickpockets and purse-snatchers. HoweverU.S. tourists have also been victims of rapes, physical assaults, armed robberies and murders. For example, in February 2013, a female U.S. citizen reported being attacked by two men armed with a machete while walking on the road from San Pablo to San Juan at Lake Atitlan at 11:30 a.m.
The number of violent crimes reported by U.S. citizens and other foreigners has remained high and such crimes have occurred even in areas of Guatemala City once considered safe, such as Zones 10, 14 and 15. Additionally, the Peace Corps has designated areas of the country with particularly high incidents of crime “off-limits” to Peace Corps volunteers. Due to large scale drug and alien smuggling, the Guatemalan border with Mexico (and in particular the northwestern corner of Petén) is a high-risk area. The border areas including the Sierra de Lacandon and Laguna del Tigre National Parks are among the most dangerous areas in Guatemala. The U.S. Embassy takes extra precautions when U.S. government personnel travel to the region.
HOMICIDES: The Government of Guatemala’s official release on crime statistics for the period January through June of 2013 showed a total of 2,736 murders, compared to a total of 2,449 over the same period in 2012, for an increase of 11%. This comes to a projected total of 5,472 murders for 2013 and makes Guatemala one of the more dangerous countries in the world. While the vast majority of murders do not involve foreigners, the sheer volume of activity means that local officials find it difficult to cope with the problem. Since December 2008, 31 murders of U.S. citizens have been reported in Guatemala, including six in 2011. In 2012, six U.S. citizens were the victims of murder or attempted murder, three of which occurred in November and December.
MISSING PERSONS: At the same time the murder rate has decreased, the number of reported missing persons’ cases increased 156 percent from 2009 to 2012. In separate incidents in October and November of 2012, the families of two U.S. citizen males reported them missing. To date, their whereabouts have not been determined.
KIDNAPPING: During the first six months of 2013, there were a total of 24 reported kidnappings, compared to a total of 44 during the same period in 2012. Gang members are often well armed with sophisticated weaponry and have been known to use massive amounts of force to extort, kidnap and kill. Such events have occurred in Guatemala City and rural Guatemala. There have been “express” kidnappings in recent years, primarily in Guatemala City, in which kidnappers demand a relatively small ransom that they believe can be quickly gathered. U.S. citizens, although not specifically targeted, have been kidnap victims. Some kidnapping gangs are known to kill their victims whether or not the ransom is paid. In January 2012, a U.S. citizen was kidnapped in Santa Rosa and was reportedly killed when kidnappers did not get the demanded ransom. In August 2012, kidnappers seized a 17-year-old in Chiquimula; the child was eventually returned. In September 2013, a U.S. citizen was kidnapped while visiting family and was held for ransom for approximately two weeks before she was able to escape. In February, 2013, a 19-year-old dual U.S.–Guatemalan citizen female was kidnapped in a suburb of Guatemala City; she was released after 5 days in captivity. In total, six U.S. citizens were reported kidnapped in 2012, compared with three kidnappings in 2011, though it is important to keep in mind that many kidnappings are not reported to the authorities.
SEXUAL ASSAULTS: According to Guatemalan crime statistics, reports of sexual assault have increased dramatically in recent years. Women should be especially careful when traveling alone and avoid staying out late without an escort. Support for victims of sexual assault is lacking outside of major cities, and there are not enough trained personnel who can help victims either in the capital or outlying areas. Several U.S. citizens have been raped in Guatemala in recent years. Arrest and prosecution of assailants in sexual assault cases is uncommon at best and can be more difficult without private legal assistance.
CELL PHONE ROBBERIES: Reports of cell phone robberies received by the Guatemalan Telecommunications Superintendency (SIT) increased 40 percent from 2011 to 2012, with most of these robberies taking place by force or the threat of force. That translates into 142,745 cell phones in 2012, or one cell phone taken every four minutes. It is likely that some of the increase is due to an increase in reporting. Current data from the Government of Guatemala indicates that from January through July of 2013 approximately 10,500 cellular phones were stolen per month. In response, in September 2013 the Government of Guatemala passed new legislation punishing the theft of cellular phones by up to 15 years in prison and up to a $30,000 fine.
PERSONAL ROBBERIES: Theft, armed robbery, and carjacking are the most common problems encountered by U.S. citizens who visit Guatemala. No area of the city is immune to daytime assaults, including the upscale shopping, tourist, and residential areas of zones 10, 14, 15, and 16 in Guatemala City. Street robberies of pedestrians and motorists occur daily; in most instances these result only in the loss of cell phones, other small electronics, or cash, and do not turn violent unless the victims resist.
Robberies from occupied vehicles are becoming more common. A particularly troubling pattern is the use of motorcycles for armed robbery. Typically, two men on a motorcycle accost the driver of a car and demand the driver’s cell phone. Guatemalan law now mandates that only the operator is allowed on the motorcycle. The law also says that the motorcycle license plate must be printed on a sticker which is affixed to the back of the motorcycle driver's helmet. However, criminals in Guatemala have adapted tactics to include more than one motorcycle..
Leaving cars unattended in parking lots of fast food franchises can also invite break-ins in spite of the presence of armed guards. Make sure you leave the car just long enough to complete the meal.
Pickpockets and purse-snatchers are prevalent in major cities and tourist sites. Those who offer no resistance when confronted by armed thieves are usually not hurt. There have been numerous reported incidents of bank patrons being robbed outside banks after withdrawing large sums of money, suggesting possible complicity of bank personnel on the inside.
Some recent reports of highway robberies include accusations that police, or assailants dressed as police, have been involved. A few have included sexual assaults of victims.
RESIDENTIAL BREAK-INS: Home invasions by armed groups occur from time to time in upscale neighborhoods. Thieves gain access by enticing a resident to open the door for a delivery or by rushing in when family or staff open the door. Residential crime rates for the first four months of 2013 were down 8 percent compared to the same period in 2012.
FINANCIAL SCAMS: Extortion calls are commonplace, and many times originate within prisons. In recent years, the number of extortions has risen dramatically. In most cases, reporting the attempt to the police, changing the phone number and not responding to the threats will resolve the matter. However, cases involving gang members must be taken seriously as many gang members will not hesitate to back up their threats with violence.
GRANDPARENT SCAMS: There has been a recent increase in scams in which grandparents or older people receive phone calls claiming that their grandchildren or other young relatives have been arrested and are in custody in Guatemala. Typically the caller will claim that the grandchild (or other relative) urgently needs money for bail or for bribes (usually about $2,000). Before sending any money, recipients of the calls are urged to contact the grandchild in question (who most likely is not in Guatemala and may never have been) or the child’s parents to make sure you are not being scammed. If in doubt, call the U.S. Embassy at 011-(502) 2326-4501. Do not call the number the callers give you, as it will only help them reinforce the scam by having fictitious embassy officials answer the phone. For additional information, please read our information on International Financial Scams.
VEHICLE THEFTS: Carjackings and vehicle thefts continue to be a serious problem. There has also been a marked increase in commercial vehicle robberies over the past several years. Particularly attractive to thieves are trucks carrying shipments of electronics or gasoline.
DEMONSTRATIONS: Large demonstrations occur throughout Guatemala, often with little or no notice, and can cause serious traffic disruptions. Although most demonstrations are peaceful, they can turn violent, and travelers should avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place. The use of roadblocks and/or blocking of public facilities, including the international airport, has increased and demonstrators may prevent tourists caught behind the blockades from leaving. When acts of violence are particularly severe, such as those caused by drug traffickers in the Petén region, a state of siege can be declared by the authorities. That likely means a curfew will be set and increased police patrols in the areas affected. Public gatherings and permission to carry weapons also may be restricted. U.S. citizens traveling through these places should be very cautious, cooperate with the authorities and stay indoors after the curfew.
COUNTERFEIT GOODS: U.S. citizens are advised not to purchase counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, if you purchase them you may also be breaking local law.
SUSPICION OF OUTSIDERS: Guatemala is a country with many different and firmly held local beliefs and customs. Particularly in small villages, residents are often wary and suspicious of outsiders. In the past, Guatemalan citizens have been lynched for suspicion of child abduction, so we recommend that U.S. citizens keep a distance from local children, and refrain from actions that could fuel such suspicions. In addition, U.S. citizens are advised to be aware of and avoid activities that might unintentionally violate a cultural or religious belief.