The Current Situation
In 2014, there was a large uptick in the number of child refugees coming to the U.S. from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The debate over the cause of this migration is well documented in the media — just search for “Central American refugees” in Google and you’ll find a wealth of information, some of it helpful and some of it less so.
It’s reported that these children are fleeing violence, gangs, and extreme poverty. In part, this is true — the rates of violence and poverty are higher in Guatemala than in other parts of the world. The danger in some places is very real, especially in border areas where gang activity is high. This has undoubtedly led to an increase in emigration from Guatemala to the U.S. The media, however, can sensationalize the issue and make the idea of traveling to Guatemala seem more dangerous than it really is. If you’re smart about where you go and what you do, you should be fine.
Even so, we want to address the facts and give you a better idea of what it’s like in Guatemala. As you’ll see below, the situation is complex and has roots in Spanish colonialism, military dictatorships, and the Guatemalan Civil War. Circumstances are beginning to change, but there’s still a lot left to do. Travelers should be aware of the issues that the country faces, but not be scared to visit. There are many ways to travel safely in Guatemala.
A Portrait of The Past
Guatemala has a tumultuous history, especially over the last hundred years. There have been revolutions, civil wars, military governments, and bloody uprisings. The last few decades have seen increasing stability in the government and society, but Guatemala still lacks the longstanding peace that other countries, like Costa Rica, have enjoyed.
The 36-year Guatemalan civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996, had a large impact on the country. A whole generation came to see violence, extrajudicial execution, indigenous genocide, and forced disappearance as the norm. The situation has changed radically, but the lingering effects of civil war still remain.
Guatemala also lacked reliable law enforcement for much of the 20th century. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the military was a dominant political force in Guatemala and used violent tactics to suppress insurrection. Political violence was common, especially during the scorched earth campaigns of the early 1980s. To this extent, the rule of law in Guatemala has been both corrupt and cutthroat — this has, perhaps, led to a society that has little faith in law enforcement and is moderately accustomed to violence.
Crime and Poverty in Guatemala
Between 1967 and 1980, around 109,000 Guatemalans immigrated to the U.S., largely due to a hostile political climate and a massive earthquake that rocked the country in 1976. Since then, the number of immigrants has remained steady, with about 40,000 Guatemalans reaching the U.S. each year. These days, many of the immigrants are children fleeing not only Guatemala, but El Salvador and Honduras as well. And they aren’t just coming to the U.S. — other Central American countries saw a 712 percent increase in asylum claims from 2008 to 2013.
In 2013, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala were some of the most dangerous countries in the world. The U.N. found that Honduras had the world’s highest per-capita homicide rate, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people. El Salvador was fourth, with a rate of 41.2 homicides per 100,000 people, and Guatemala was fifth, with a rate of 39.9 homicides per 100,000 people. By comparison, Costa Rica had about 8.5 homicides per 100,000 people and Panama had 17.2 homicides per 100,000 people.
Murder in Guatemala is often gang related and takes place near the border with Mexico. This area is home to the Mexican Zeta cartel, which moved into rural parts of Guatemala after an increased Mexican crackdown on drug cartels. Crime near the border is often committed by transnational gangs and transnational criminal organizations. Not surprisingly, Guatemalan children are fleeing the areas where these gangs are most prevalent.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agency found that of 404 children who had left Latin America, some 58 percent cited “international protection needs.” Despite efforts to improve, the Guatemalan police force is not very effective. The Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) sees regular allegations of corruption and inefficiency — agents have even been suspected of helping with highway robberies and drug trafficking. Private security forces now outnumber police officers in Guatemala by more than four to one.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency recently released an infographic detailing the origin points of 35,000 migrant children that were apprehended between October 1 and May 14, 2014. It stated that “many Guatemalan children come from rural areas, indicating that they are probably seeking economic opportunities in the U.S. Salvadoran and Honduran children, on the other hand, come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the U.S. preferable to remaining at home.” Guatemalan children, therefore, are more likely to be economic refugees than Honduran and Salvadoran children.
Around 29.1 percent of Guatemalans live in extreme poverty and 54.8 percent live in poverty; many survive on less than $2 a day. The gap between the rich and poor is also quite large — the wealthiest 10 percent of the population earns one-half of all income, while the top 20 percent earns two-thirds of all income. Furthermore, the World Bank reported that “only 2.5 percent of Guatemala’s farms control 65 percent of the agricultural land, while 88 percent of the farms control only 16 percent of the land.” There’s a massive disparity in land ownership, too.
Poor economic conditions provide fertile ground for criminal organizations. As transnational gangs move into rural villages, local residents are tempted or coerced into joining the gangs. Those that don’t join gangs have little room for opposition.
Guatemala now has the largest economy in Central America. In 2013, Guatemala’s GDP was $81.5 billion, up from $78.9 billion in the previous year. As the Guatemalan economy continues to grow, one hopes that there will be fewer crimes.
With better governments and more trustworthy law enforcement, the situation is improving, especially in areas that are frequented by tourists. The government has realized the positive impact that tourism can have on the economy — according to government statistics, 1.7 million visitors came to Guatemala in 2013, up from 826,000 in 2000. Of the Central American countries, only Costa Rica sees more visitors.
Crime and Tourism
Crime and violence both happen in Guatemala, and there’s no denying the fact that Guatemala has a high murder rate. These statistics, however, aren’t representative of the whole country — the murder rate is much higher in gang-infested areas than tourist destinations.
What’s more, you can find cities in the U.S. with comparable — and in fact, higher — murder rates. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2012, Flint, Michigan had a murder rate of 62 homicides per 100,000 people; Detroit had a murder rate of 54.6 homicides per 100,000 people; and New Orleans had a murder rate of 53.2 per 100,000 people. Put simply, there are places in the U.S. that are just as dangerous as anywhere in Guatemala.
Tourists don’t tend to experience violent crime in Guatemala; the most common type of crime reported by tourists is theft and armed robbery. Purse-snatchers and pickpockets are often found in popular areas, large cities, and crowded markets. These crimes might be bald-faced attempts at theft or involve a more elaborate scheme. For example, two people might approach you — one asks you a question, while the other steals your purse and runs off. While you’re out in public, remain aware of your surroundings and take note of anyone who approaches you.
Carjackings and bus robberies also happen in Guatemala. Armed robbers sometimes attack low-priced intra- and inter-city public buses — for this reason, it’s recommended to opt for private shuttles or more modern inter-city buses whenever possible. Robbers are more likely to stop buses/cars on rural roads than in the city, and nighttime is usually when they strike. Some shuttles along heavily traveled tourist routes have also been robbed.
Tourists are sometimes targeted on trails in isolated areas, including those around Lake Atitlán and the Agua Volcano. In other areas, like Tikal and Cerro de La Cruz in Antigua, Tourist Police (Politur) are present to protect tourists — this has helped make these places much safer.
Do note, however, that although most violent crime does not involve foreigners, murders, kidnappings, and rapes of tourists have occurred. You should have a good grasp of the current situation before wandering aimlessly around the country. There is a lot you can do to protect yourself and your belongings.
It’s impossible to completely eliminate the risk of robbery or crime while traveling in Guatemala. However, by following a few basic guidelines and remaining alert, you can greatly reduce your chance of becoming a victim.
• Avoid displaying any valuable items – such as fancy cameras, purses, watches, laptops, iPods, jewelry, and even cell phones – while out in public. Hotels often have a safety deposit box where you can store these items. If your hotel doesn’t have a safe, stash your valuables in various spots throughout your locked luggage. Bring locks to secure your luggage in hotels and on shuttles.
• Don’t carry lots of money around with you — only bring what you need for a given day.
• Don’t wander around with your passport. Print off a few photocopies of your passport at home and bring one of these with you during excursions. Leave your real passport in the safety deposit box at your hotel.
• Stay alert while using an ATM. Scams have occurred at ATMs in the past, so it’s best to not accept help from a stranger if you’re using one.
• Women should be careful when traveling alone. Try to not walk alone at night; if you need to get back to your hotel from a restaurant or bar, it’s best to take a cab. Traveling with a friend is always encouraged.
• Don’t hike alone. To reduce the chance of robbery, hike in groups or with a guide. It’s also a good idea to tell someone at your hotel where you’ll be going before you head off on a hike.
• While traveling on buses, keep your valuables with you if your luggage is placed underneath the bus.
• Don’t bring valuables to the beach, that might tempt thieves while you’re in the water.
• If you are robbed, do not resist. Give the thieves whatever they ask for and don’t fight back. People have been killed after refusing to give up valuables or money. The assailants may have guns and can use them if you resist. It’s better to lose your wallet than lose your life.
• Stick to tourist-friendly places while traveling in Guatemala. Crimes have occurred in parts of Guatemala City that were once considered quite safe, including Zones 10, 14, and 15. The border with Mexico is dangerous due to drug and alien smuggling — this includes the Laguna del Tigre National Park and Sierra de Lacandón National Park, both of which are in the northwest corner of Petén.
Hotels often have security guards and other security measures in place. Certain tourist attractions will also have security.
It’s possible to have INGUAT (Guatemala’s institute of tourism) provide security for shuttles, private transportation, and tours. In this case, a Guatemalan police officer will accompany the shuttle/tour and provide additional security. This is not always recommended, however, as increased police presence may signal would-be criminals that the shuttle/tour contains valuable people and/or items. If you would like to arrange for INGUAT security, please let us know.
If you or someone you know is a victim of a crime in Guatemala, contact the local police and your national embassy or consulate. The U.S. Embassy is located in Guatemala City and you can also visit their website prior to your trip. You can also stay informed by checking official sources of information, like U.S. and U.K. embassy websites and INGUAT.
Where To Go
While it’s true that some parts of Guatemala aren’t safe for tourists, there are many places that are perfectly fine to visit. These are some of the country’s most popular and interesting destinations. The following towns are used to hosting foreigners and work hard to ensure a safe and hospitable environment — after all, their livelihood depends on it.
Antigua is one of Guatemala’s most charming cities. Set within the Central Highlands, not far from Guatemala City, it’s chock-full of history and culture. While here you can visit 17th century churches, tour archeological museums, and dine at modern restaurants. The city is flanked by three volcanoes, which offer up areas to hike, bike, and ride horses.
The Western Highlands host a number of traveler-friendly destinations. Lake Atitlán, called “the most beautiful lake in the world” by Aldous Huxley, is picturesque and surrounded by volcanoes and quaint Mayan villages. It’s a fun place to experience traditional Mayan culture, explore the outdoors, or simply enjoy beautiful views.
The Western Highlands also are home to Chichicastenango and Quetzaltenango. Chichicastenango is a small and friendly town with a fascinating outdoor marketplace. This market is a good place to purchase high-quality handicrafts and see locals carousing the market alongside foreigners. On the steps of the nearby Santo Tomás Church, you can see indigenous people praying and reciting incantations.
Quetzaltenango (also known as “Xela”) is Guatemala’s second largest city. It has a cosmopolitan feel and is a hub for NGOs and language schools. While here you can tour a modern art museum, visit a neoclassical temple, and dine on Middle Eastern cuisine. There are places to go hiking and rock climbing outside the city.
Set within the Petén region, Lake Petén Itzá is home to the twin towns of Flores and Santa Elena. Flores, which is set on a small island close to the lakeshore, is essentially an extension of Santa Elena. Flores is a cute and quaint town where you can stroll around, eat food, and take pictures. While here you can go kayaking and boating on the lake, or hiking and birding on the mainland.
Located along the Pacific Coast, the town of Monterrico offers up a tranquil and turtle-focused tourism destination. The town is set within the Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii, a nature reserve that stretches along the coast and protects both beaches and mangroves. This area is an important nesting site for olive ridley and leatherback sea turtles, and there are organizations in town dedicated to protecting these fascinating animals. In Monterrico, travelers can witness the hatching and releasing of baby sea turtles.
All of these destinations are fairly secure and safe — they are used to hosting foreign visitors and have a low crime level. Even so, it’s still a good idea to remain vigilant and keep an eye on your belongings.
Wrapping It Up
Guatemala is a wonderful but complicated country. It hosts the world’s best Mayan ruins and has some of the largest tracts of rainforest on the planet. Its culture is vibrant and its history is fascinating. There are, however, parts of the country that still show the scars of a troubling past — including crime, violence, and poverty. These are complex social and economic issues, and one hopes that as Guatemala continues its ascent towards stability and equality, things will continue to improve.