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Country Reports

Guatemala Country Report

Overview

INTRODUCTION

More than two decades after the 1996 peace accords put an end to 36 years of armed conflict (40,000 deaths), travel to Guatemala (population 15.5 million) continues to require a certain level of caution, due to high crime rates and health concerns, among other issues.

CRIME

Guatemala, along with El Salvador and Honduras, make up the "Northern Triangle" in Central America. According to the UN, this region is among the most dangerous in the world, due in large part to the presence of criminal organizations and drug cartels that are responsible for high homicide rates. Firearms are readily available and as such criminals are often armed (along with 60 percent of the general population according to one estimate).

Despite nearly a decade of steady decline, murder rates remain worryingly high in the country, with an annual rate of 26.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017 (according to official statistics). According to government statistics released at the end of 2017, crime rates overall fell by 13 percent over the previous two years. Nevertheless, rates of violent crime and extortion - fueled by poverty, extremely low conviction rates, and the presence of gangs - have remained high, leading to two deaths per day on average.

While Guatemalans are the primary victims of crime (e.g. theft, extortion, rape, carjacking, kidnapping, etc.), foreign residents and tourists can also be targeted by thieves, who may not hesitate to resort to violent means. Petty crime (pickpocketing, purse snatching) occurs in all major cities and tourist sites and thieves often operate on motorcycles. If confronted by a thief, it is highly advisable to offer no resistance - i.e. give up demanded objects, do not attempt to scream or negotiate - and avoid all brusque movements to avoid the situation escalating into violence. Generally speaking, it is advisable to conceal signs of wealth as much as possible (including laptops and smartphones), to be vigilant when handling cash, to only use ATMs located within banks (and be vigilant when leaving banks), and to never hail taxis off the street (see TRANSPORTATION section).

Foreigners are also sometimes drugged before being robbed; it is thus imperative to pay close attention to drinks when in bars and cafés and to not accept food, drink, or cigarettes from strangers.

Furthermore, kidnapping - including "express" kidnapping - is an issue in both the capital Guatemala City and rural areas of the country, although foreigners are rarely targeted.

Grenade attacks and bombings, often related to extortion and intimidation rackets, are occasionally carried out by gang members, particularly in the capital region. In early 2018, Guatemalan authorities announced the deployment of additional security measures around schools in and near Guatemala City over fears of attacks and extortion by gangs.

SOCIOPOLITICAL UNREST

Protests are relatively common and sometimes erupt with little to no notice. During these mobilizations, which have been known to turn violent, demonstrators often block roads, including major highways. Individuals in the country should maintain a safe distance from all protests.

As of 2017-2018, the country has experienced a series of anti-corruption protests, many focused on the alleged misconduct of President Jimmy Morales, accused of illegally financing his 2015 presidential campaign and having ties with organized crime. Many legislators also face corruption accusations but benefit from immunity. Corruption has historically been a major issue in Guatemala; both former President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president were forced from office following an investigation by the UN anti-corruption entity in Guatemala, the CICIG, and unprecedented mass anti-government protests that lasted for 20 weeks in 2015.

Protests by campesinos (peasant farmers) are also relatively common and often involve roadblocks.

Political violence and an increase in the frequency and intensity of demonstrations often accompany electoral periods. The next presidential and legislative elections will be held in September 2019. Furthermore, a national referendum will be held on April 15, 2018, regarding a territorial dispute with neighboring Belize (i.e. whether to bring the case to the International Court of Justice).

CULTURAL RISKS

Residents of rural communities can be highly suspicious of outsiders and seemingly harmless activity can provoke violent reactions (e.g. swimming in a sacred pond, photographing children, etc.).

NATURAL RISKS

Guatemala is highly vulnerable to natural disasters.

Powerful earthquakes regularly strike the country. In 1976, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.6 on the Richter scale left 26,000 dead and devastated parts of the country. More recently, an 8.2-magnitude offshore earthquake struck the region in September 2017, resulting in damages in the southwestern department of San Marcos.

Offshore earthquakes can trigger tsunamis. If in a coastal area when an earthquake strikes, immediately look to see if a tsunami alert has been issued (either by the government or the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center). If in doubt, move inland following tsunami evacuation routes if designated and/or seek higher ground.

The country is also home to a number of active volcanoes, including the Fuego, Pacaya, and Santiaguito volcanoes. Eruptions have been known to result in flight disruptions, including at Guatemala City's La Aurora International Airport (GUA).

Guatemala is vulnerable to hurricanes, tropical storms, and tropical storm remnants coming from both the Pacific and Caribbean. The Pacific hurricane season officially runs from May 15 to November 30, and the Atlantic hurricane season from June 1 to November 30. In June 2014, Tropical Storm Boris caused flooding and property damage, along with five deaths.

Torrential rains can lead to deadly flooding and landslides, particularly during the rainy season (May/June to November). Some 300 people were killed in a landslide that buried the village of El Cambray Dos (15 km [10 mi] east of the capital) in October 2015; another 12 people died in a landslide in San Pedro Soloma in June 2017. Furthermore, severe flooding in September/October 2017 left at least 26 people dead and hundreds of thousands of people affected; numerous roads and bridges were blocked by the floodwaters.

Forest fires are common during the dry season.

TRANSPORTATION

Driving conditions are dangerous due to poorly maintained roads, lack of lighting, and unsafe driving habits; fatal accidents are common. Additionally, accidents or general road rage have been known to lead to violent confrontations.

There are also significant risks on roads and highways due to the presence of criminal elements, notably in rural areas. Attacks and other criminal activities along highways in rural areas, notably in border regions (e.g. Petén department), due to the presence of arms, human, and drug traffickers. Criminals sometimes erect roadblocks to force cars to stop before their occupants are robbed or assaulted, including during the day.

Driving at night outside of cities should be avoided whenever possible and travel in groups of two or more vehicles is recommended. In cities, always drive with windows rolled up, doors locked, and valuable items stored out of sight; when in heavy traffic, leave room to maneuver between you and the car ahead.

Crime and accident rates are high on public transportation, notably municipal buses in the capital, as well as on intercity buses. Bus drivers and passengers may also be attacked by gang members in the context of extortion rackets and thus most buses should be avoided. Transmetro buses can be considered relatively safe.

Never hail a taxi off the street and only use official companies (e.g. Taxi Amarillo and Taxi Seguro), called in advance. Unlicensed taxi drivers have been known to rob or assault their passengers. 

Note that crime rates tend to be particularly high around airports.

INFRASTRUCTURE

The Central American countries' electricity grids are connected by a single 1820-km (1130-mi) electricity line, making them particularly susceptible to power outages.  There were seven blackouts that have affected all of Central America between 2010 and 2017.

HEALTH

Many Guatemalan hospitals and medical centers suffer from a lack of equipment, medications, beds, and trained personnel. All travelers are advised to take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance prior to departure.

Tap water is not considered safe to drink. According to one study, nine out of every 100,000 Guatemalans die each year due to contaminated water. To reduce the risk of contracting a food- or water-borne disease, do not drink untreated water or beverages with ice. Avoid any undercooked dishes, especially meats and seafood, and any other foods that cannot be thoroughly cooked, peeled, or disinfected (e.g. ice cream, berries, etc.).

Various mosquito-borne diseases are present:

  • There is a low risk of contracting malaria year-round in areas under 1500 m (5000 ft) in elevation in rural areas. There is no risk in Guatemala City, Antigua, or around Lake Atitlan.
  • Dengue fever is present, particularly in urban and peri-urban areas. Some 3000 cases were reported in 2017.
  • Chikungunya also presents a risk to individuals in Guatemala; however, only a few hundred cases were reported in 2017.
  • There is a moderate risk of contracting the Zika virus in the country. While the virus is usually relatively benign, links between the Zika virus and severe birth defects, as well as the potentially fatal neurological disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), have been established.

Epizootic rabies is present in the country. The main line of defense against rabies is to avoid contact with unfamiliar mammals (notably street dogs and cats). If you are scratched or bitten, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Climate

Guatemala has a hot and humid tropical climate. The dry season lasts from November until March (mild temperatures, low humidity) and the rainy season from June until October. Humidity during the rainy season, accompanied by high temperatures (38°C), is often stifling, particularly along the Pacific coast. Nights are generally cold in mountainous areas.

Useful Numbers

Country Code: +502 Fire Dept. volontaires: 110 Fire Dept. municipaux: 123 Emergency Services: 911

Electricity

Voltage: 120 V ~ 60 Hz

Outlets:

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