An interview with Carmen Rosa de Léon Escibano, Executive Director, Instituto de Ensenanza para el Desarrollo Sostenible (IEPADES), Guatemala.

Tell us about the work of IEPADES.

IEPADES is an NGO that has worked for 30 years in Guatemala, and in the rest of Central America through strategic alliances. At its roots, the Teaching Institute for Sustainable Development works to strengthen local power and economic and sustainable development in rural communities.

As a result of the peace agreements in Guatemala, without abandoning the original work, we focused on following up on the reform of the security sector. For this reason, we began to work on various aspects that had to do with the issue of Citizen Security. Among these topics is gun control, and the follow-up to the creation of the new National Civil Police. One of the IEPADES´s specialties is working with the Security and Justice sector on institutional strengthening, capacity building and support for research. It was because of the work that followed up on gun control that we came to work with private security matters.

Why has private security become a human rights issue in Guatemala?

Private Security in Guatemala has its origins mainly as a result of the internal armed conflict. Most of Private Security Companies are in the hands of ex-military, and, many of the private security agents in Guatemala also did military service. During the internal armed conflict in Guatemala there was great repression, mainly led by members of the army. Private Security Companies therefore tend to reflect this “culture “of repression. This situation is obvious, especially when there are territorial or community movements that protest against the extractive industries. Several of the conflicts and deaths of community members have occurred precisely because of the actions of local private security companies that are hired by transnational companies.

On the other hand, studies carried out by IEPADES have found that, there is also a violation of human rights and labor rights within private security companies. We found, for example, that 80% of private security workers were not paid with the minimum wage[1], a situation that violates the Guatemalan`s Law that Regulates the Private Security Services that is recognized as one of the most complete across the Latin American region.  Although the law recognizes the need for education and training of private security agents, what we have found is that this training is not provided by private security companies, which is not in the interests of their clients. This lack of training becomes a problem in conflict resolution when under-educated security guards want to repress communities that are against natural resource extraction. It’s likely that this lack of training and monitoring of the norms established by Law, also results in weapons being used improperly by security guards and, above all, is reflected in acts of violence against women including in cases of domestic violence.

Can you give us your perspective on the migration issue in Guatemala and what role private security has to play, if any?  

In Guatemala there are almost 45,000 private security guards, a number that is on a par with the number of National Civil Police. Private security has become one of the main sources of work for people who come from rural Guatemala, which makes it an alternative job source for migration. It is also a source of work for those who are deported from the United States.

In two surveys carried out by IEPADES in 2015[2] and 2019 in the department of Guatemala, it was found that the main security reason for the migration of people living in the capital city was extortion. This crime is mostly committed by gangs and it’s the public security sector that plays the major role in fighting these structures rather than private security.

What difference has civil society and IEPADES made on these issues in Guatemala?

Civil society has a very important role to play in the work related to private security companies. The work we carry out is divided into several axes:

  • Capacity building, especially of the State control bodies such as the General Direction of Private Security Services, part of the Interior Ministry, and the Control Division of PSC in the National Civil Police.
  • Research and monitoring, to obtain information as a measure of control and social audit on Private Security Companies. This is carried out through surveys, focus group interviews, as well as through receiving complaints from the population.
  • Holding regional meetings, to exchange experiences as well as best practices between the institutions in charge of PSC control and civil society organizations
  • Work with strategic alliances between different actors. An example of this is the Guatemalan Voluntary Principles Working Group that includes ICoCA´s country states members embassies, Private sector, and NGO´s as IEPADES. This group seeks to strengthen, on the one hand, the application of the voluntary principles of human rights and companies. On the other hand, it seeks to strengthen the knowledge of private companies so that they hire private security services that comply with the Voluntary Principles.

How can civil society organisations contribute to ICoCA’s mission of promoting responsible private security?

  • It is necessary to strengthen the network of NGO members to act effectively in the role of supervising compliance with the International Code of Conduct
  • Standard criteria tools must be established to assist in the observation of private security companies to ensure they comply with the International Code of Conduct
  • Creation of mechanisms for exchanging good practices both between civil society, the private sector, private security companies and States to better fulfill the roles of ICoCA’s members
  • Establish mechanisms to channel possible abuses and violations of the International Code of Conduct and other mechanisms such as the Voluntary Principles Initiative by private security companies.

[1] Private security is the sector that has been most denounced to the Ministry of Labor for non-compliance with salary payment benefits and for changes in working conditions

[2] Iepades (2015) Survey on Victimization and perception of the work of the National Civil Police

Iepades (2019) Survey on Victimization and perception of the work of the National Civil Police