Corona Governance in Urban Margins


Corona Governance in Poor Neighborhoods and Settlements of Guatemala City.

Karla M. López


They hardly go there … even the police are afraid of what they hear in the neighborhood (neighbor zone 7).

Lack of police is common in neighborhoods and poor settlements of Guatemala City. According to Ana, a resident of the area, the police hardly enters her neighborhood, because there are youth groups called “maras” that extort in the place:

Here, what mostly happened were extortions in homes and in stores. Any business you try to have, even before you have all your merchandise on display, they are quickly there to collect their “tax.”

During the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, Ana tells, these criminal groups stopped extorting money, possibly due to the implementation of curfews or because they were protecting themselves from the disease. However, the police presence in the neighborhood was scarce: “The police would arrive, they closed the shops and they left, it was rare that they returned. People outside observed the police leave, opened the shops and shopping continued.” According to Ana, the police only arrived in the established curfew hours, when there was a complaint, or when someone was killed, but otherwise they were too scared to enter. The little vigilance allowed many residents to not respect the containment measures imposed by the government in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. By October 2020, the extortion had returned. Ana comments that the neighbors do not speak about or report the extortion due to fear. They prefer to leave their homes, move to other places, or pay the extortion.


Health Security and Citizen Security

The crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic in Guatemala City generated a challenge for the newly elected state authorities. They decreed a State of Calamity with containment measures such as the closure of educational and commercial activities, suspension of public transport, work stoppages, border closures and curfews at different times. These measures in response to the health crisis especially affected areas with the highest density, poverty, and vulnerability.

The National Civil Police (PNC) took an important role in the application and compliance with health security measures, as well as citizen security. Their responsibilities increased, since they had to ensure compliance with the curfew, closure of businesses at non-permitted hours, social distancing, as well as the protection of houses that were in quarantine. They also had a fundamental part in communicating the presidential provisions to the citizens through megaphones or posters.

Our responsibility was much more, apart from our daily activities, we had to verify that everything extra was fulfilled, all the presidential provisions, and there it cost a little for people to accept that they could not meet, that could not Party, not going out, no spas, no nothing, so all that became quite complicated. (interview PNC Agent)


From March to September 2020, the Government of Guatemala applied different curfew schedules to restrict mobility. In the first months more than two hundred people were detained monthly who disobeyed the mobility restrictions in the curfew hours. Most of the individuals were drunk and made a scandal on public roads. Shops and markets were also affected, with mandatory measures such as the use of a mask, social distancing, application of antibacterial gel, the taking of temperature and closing at established times. According to a leader of the San José Mercantil Market located in zone 7 of the capital city, at the beginning of the pandemic there was a lot of tension and pressure to comply with the measures. People had to adapt to the schedules that the Government established. He explains:

From 5:00am in the morning the market was open. Customers had from 5:00am to 1:00pm to come to buy and there were people who at 1:00pm came to find that the doors were already closed. With lots of anger they threatened us with death, they wanted to attack us. We suffered in that sense.


Despite these conflicts, there was no case where police force was used, according to the Social Communication Spokesperson of the National Civil Police. Many people took the mobility restrictions as a joke, leaving and entering their homes after they saw the police officers pass. Curfews resulted in the decrease in crime incidence. According to a UNDP report in the months of January to June the crime incidence was 12.2% less in relation to the year 2019, as well as a reduction in the crimes on public roads and homicides. The agents of the PNC, agree that mobility restrictions helped to reduce crime. However, there was an increase in cases of domestic violence and violence against women. “Since in one day there was crime from 5:00 am to 4:00 pm and from 4:00 pm to 5:00 am there was violence against women or family violence” (interview with PNC agent). According to the UNDP report intrafamily violence in the first semester of 2020 increased with 26.3 percent, likewise calls for help due to intrafamily violence increased from February to June 2020.


Precarious Settlements: a challenge for Citizen Security during COVID-19

Guatemala City has had an accelerated population growth in recent decades. This is characterized by socio-spatial segregation and the large number of poor neighborhoods and precarious settlements located on the slopes of ravines, where many of the residents are migrants from the rural area of ​​the country. In addition, these spaces are territory controlled by youth gangs called maras, including the largest “Barrio 18” and “MS13,” as well as drug trafficking groups.  These areas have high homicide rates, as well as little police presence, and are classified by the PNC as red zones. In the settlements access is only possible on foot through small streets on the banks of the ravines, which makes the task of citizen security and surveillance difficult.

According to the interviews with agents of the PNC, entering these places is not easy at all. Operations or invasions must be carried out with enough elements of the police formed in a riot team (nucleo) to enter on foot.

There, practically nothing can be done, because they do not allow us in since they see us as rivals. They are gang members who steal motorcycles, vehicles. They are also good in eliminating each other. It costs, we had to wait for a good neighbor to report that in this and this place there were sick people. So we could act and arrive at the place to verify and make the arrangements for that person to go to quarantine (PNC Agent interview)


Carmen, a resident of a settlement in La Verbena zone 7, called the police on two occasions to report the crowds, parties, and the lack of compliance with social distancing measures. When the police arrived, people hid when they heard the sirens of the Patrols.  Then when the agents left, people came out again and continued with their parties that were prohibited. According to Carmen, the police hardly go down to the settlement. They just enter, but immediately leave the place, “because in the end, no one can enter there, whoever enters comes out dead, because there are many criminals there.” Like Carmen, many of the residents of these places prefer not to have much communication with the neighbors to avoid problems. Carmen does not know if the youth groups in her settlement belong to a gang, some have tattoos (a sign of belonging to a gang) and others do not. She states that robberies, extortions, and murders are committed in neighboring neighborhoods, not within her settlement.


Community Organization against violence during the Pandemic

Other neighboring neighborhoods in zone 7, have chosen to organize or establish security committees to prevent violence in their sectors and have established measures to contain the spread of the Covid-19. Don Carlos, who is part of such a committee of neighbors, indicates that already before the pandemic they took turns doing security verification rounds, because in the same community young people went out to assault passersby from other communities. Many of these young people do not work or study and are involved in drugs selling. Therefore, community neighbors decided to take security in their own hands in order to prevent them from harming people.

Currently they have a gate at the entrance of the neighborhood and at the beginning of the pandemic they placed a person who took the temperature of everyone who entered.  Carlos does not trust the police substation near his sector, because on one occasion the same police provided the numbers and name of the person who made a complaint. Therefore, he prefers to call the central emergency number of the National Civil Police to report anonymously or acts upon it himself. Many residents of these sectors prefer not to talk about the issue of security, out of fear and mistrust. In some neighborhoods drug traffickers are the ones who control the sector; they protect the community from assaults or extortions in exchange for maintaining the silence of the residents. They are the ones who provide security and resolve conflicts with criminals.

These stories make up the experiences of everyday life for residents of neighborhoods and slums of Guatemala City. Although during the pandemic of Covid-19 the police had to enter in many places more often, citizen security is still a challenge. As of October 2020, Guatemala returned to a new normal. The only measures that were maintained were the use of a mask, and the closure of educational and public activities. Economic recovery has been slow, some of the people interviewed were left without work or with a lower income. Social programs that were implemented were highly questioned due to their lack of transparency and coverage. Demonstrators even set on fire the Congres.

The agents of the National Civil Police interviewed consider that, in the absence of containment measures, crime will increase, and the risk will be even greater due to the disease. Only in 2020 1,712 police officers were infected and 25 died from Covid-19 at the level nationally and about twenty stations were quarantined in Guatemala City alone. The situation is not encouraging, and criminal groups will adapt to the new normal, maintaining control over the population.