Foto: Entremundos

Guatemala is facing a serious situation with the recruitment of children by dangerous gangs. The proliferation of disappearances and crimes, along with extortion and widespread violence, reflect an issue rooted in the lack of opportunities and security for vulnerable youth in impoverished areas.

A team of journalists from Foro Humanos reached one of the most violent neighborhoods in Guatemala. Their first stop was at a police station in Mixco, La Comunidad, substation 16-5-4. Upon arrival, a desperate woman was consulting with the police about what she could do because her 15-year-old daughter had been missing for 4 days.

The woman’s name is Edilma, and she is the mother of a missing minor. Unable to find quick answers, she decided to leave the station and go to another place where, according to her, the process would be faster to activate the Alba Keneth alert, which is used to search for girls, boys, and adolescents. From January 3rd, 2024, to February 20th, 216 alerts for minors have been activated nationwide.

Cases of disappearances in Guatemala

During the year 2023, according to police agency data, 34 people, most of them teenagers, have disappeared in this sector. From January to February 2024, 6 missing persons were reported, matching the data from the Alba Keneth alerts activated. The digital media outlet Quorum published a special report on «Disappearances» on November 28th, 2023, indicating that 57,355 Alba-Keneth alerts were activated in Guatemala over the last ten years.

Local media report that over the past decades, the situation of gangs and the recruitment of minors through social networks and schools in marked «red zones» neighborhoods has worsened. Several government agencies have made statements to coordinate efforts to address the problem. The process begins with the Civil National Police, who then inform the National Division against Gang Criminal Development (Dipanda) to track and report to the Public Ministry and the Ministry of Social Welfare, with whom a protocol is developed.

Edilma explained that her daughter disappeared on January 29th, 2024. She said, «Paola is 15 years old and no longer wanted to study. She spent all her time at home with her cellphone, not wanting to do anything, not even cleaning.» She stopped obeying her mother, and in the last month, her behavior escalated. «My daughter started communicating with inmates from zone 18,» which led to the young girl leaving home.

Read: The voices of democracy that do not find space in Guatemala; They denounce arrests and abuses by the authorities

The fight against youth recruitment in Guatemala

Until Thursday, February 1, Edilma knew absolutely nothing about her daughter; that’s why she decided to turn to the authorities. The mother speculated that Paola was dating one of the inmates at the men’s preventive center in Zone 18, one of the most important prisons where inmates operate from within, committing a large number of crimes. According to a report published on September 6, 2023, by Prensa Libre, there were 1,547 extortion complaints registered in the last 19 months.

This penitentiary houses all types of prisoners and is allegedly where youth recruitment takes place to operate outside and carry out extortions, especially targeting local businesses or public transportation in the city.

According to Astrid Escobedo, a specialist in democracy and violence, she emphasizes: «People leave their country due to violence, and those who must flee with their children, mainly teenagers, if they don’t flee, are being recruited by drug trafficking groups, and if they refuse to join criminal structures, they are killed.»

She also added that: «The main causes of this are the lack of rule of law and control, and also because politicians allowed themselves to be bought by criminals; they are the ones who choose them, so there is no one to combat them.»

According to the specialist, it is difficult for the states because «everything is at an economic level, the economic power that criminal organizations have, the state normally does not have; the problem is serious and it is impossible to stop criminal structures from buying people’s will, which is why the role of education with transparency and social service must be a priority in Guatemalan society. It is about valuing one’s community and from where it is, the only way to live, taking care of it because without caring for and respecting society, it is more difficult not to sell my will.»

Families at risk: the connection between poverty and violence

Escobedo points out that «not everything is solved with prison, but the entire issue of gangs would end if you have safe children and they have safe meal conditions with education and keeping them occupied; the seed of the gang is the child.»

«The neglected child, the abused child, the abandoned and poor child. If we remove children from gangs, they will end because criminal structures are not interested in recruiting adults,» according to Escobedo. «Now there are families living with extortion issues, but they are families that have been poor, have no access to education or jobs, and have sought to survive through extortion and also continue recruiting children,» she added.

Edilma, Paola’s mother, works for a Korean-owned maquila, leaving for work every day in the early morning and returning at night, never having a break or the possibility to constantly care for her 15-year-old daughter.

She migrated to the city at a young age, originally from Tejutla, San Marcos, and recounts that her husband spent some time extorting and recruiting minors for criminal activities, but eventually, he managed to leave that life and is now a private security police officer.

Both parents lost control of their daughter and have two younger children, whom they fear will be recruited by the criminal gangs in this sector of La Comunidad in Mixco, Guatemala.

Challenges in protective homes in vulnerable areas

That’s why they prefer their daughter to be reported as missing when activating the Alba Keneth alert, to be picked up by the state and taken to homes under its care and remain there until she reaches the legal age.

Edilma knows that the conditions in these homes are even worse than in a prison; her daughter could be abused or even die due to the constant reports of abuse by minors or family members.

In Guatemala, this story is repeated in thousands of homes in colonies that are red zones and have scarce resources, where youth and children are permanently vulnerable and easily fall into criminal structures.

Violence indices are far from being reduced; according to the National Institute of Forensic Sciences (Inacif), from August 1 to November 15, 2023, they performed 680 autopsies on corpses lifted from the municipality of Guatemala.

In the municipalities of Guatemala and Mixco, between August 1 and November 15, 2023, Inacif reports that 292 people died violently, from gunshot wounds, stabbings, and strangulation.

Inacif reported 246 autopsies on men injured by gunshot wounds aged between 15 and 19 years and 509 men and 40 women aged between 20 and 24 years during the year 2023.

During the year 2024, the ballistics laboratory conducted 1,758 autopsies nationwide, mostly from the central region.

In Guatemala City, 121 autopsies were performed from January 1 to December 31, 2024, mostly on men aged between 15 and 24 years, associated with criminal acts according to Inacif.

Extortions and shootings

Extortions, shootings, and violent deaths have been constant in Guatemala in recent years. The testimony of a victim of a bus robbery who survived the incident tells us.

Luis Fernando, 32, from the capital city, recounts: «due to my work hours, I left my office later, and I felt something strange when I got on the bus. Since it was a pirate bus, as soon as I got on, I noticed the driver talking to a guy who was telling him: calm down, please, calm down, indicating that he should wait until we reached the cloverleaf (…) I just heard what sounded like a flat tire and heard gunshots about three times, and when the car crashed, I tried to jump but my leg didn’t respond, and the robber fired 5 more shots, and people started screaming, many of those on the bus were from the mall where I worked, and a lady started screaming why me, if I was just coming from work.»

«My mom answered and I told her I had been shot; the firefighters arrived, and I just felt something warm in my lower back. At Roosevelt [Hospital], I watched the driver die; they gave him electric shocks for about ten minutes, but he didn’t make it,» Luis Fernando added.

Everyday violence in Guatemala: the normalization of danger

In Guatemala, violence is a growing problem for citizens; in fact, some carry two cell phones to give to the robber, the one they don’t need. «I didn’t take it as a trauma; I feel it’s normal because where I lived, gang members used to get on to drive, so one imagines that at some point, I would be robbed or attacked for trying to steal my phone, but I never imagined I would be shot, and my family was deeply affected,» says Luis.

There is much expectation with the change of government to improve security in the country; however, criminal structures continue to operate nationwide because the conditions have kept them strong for decades, according to experts.


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