With little faith in Latin American police, private firms rise to protect those who can pay

A panic alert flashed across Alberto Herrera's computer screen. Men claiming to be with the notorious Gulf Cartel had stopped a convoy transporting chemicals through a lawless region of northeastern Mexico. They seized two drivers from an escort truck and demanded the valuable cargo in exchange for their release.

Giant flat-screen monitors blinked with the GPS locations of dozens of vehicles carrying cargo coveted by criminals: designer jeans, rare art and business executives ripe for kidnapping.

The phone chatter and chirping two-way radios sounded like a police dispatch, but this was the emergency response room of International Private Security, a Mexico-based company that helps clients like PepsiCo, Audi and BP do business in the unpredictable landscape of a country where organized crime rules entire swaths.

A direct line to Mexico's federal police sat on Herrera's desk, but he had orders from this client not to use it. Instead, the client's crisis team negotiated the release of the drivers and their cargo.

"They didn't want us to call the police," said the 32-year-old Herrera. "People don't necessarily trust the cops."

Distrust of police has made private security big business in Latin America, where a majority of public security forces are deemed incompetent, corrupt, or both. In the world's most dangerous region, an army of nearly 4 million private security agents make up an industry growing 9 percent a year and projected to reach about $30 billion by 2016. That's more than the economies of Paraguay or El Salvador.

IPS alone has doubled its employee ranks to 4,000 over the last five years. Across the region, private guards outnumber public officers beyond the global average of 2-to-1. In Brazil, it's 4-to-1; in Guatemala, 5-to-1; and in Honduras, it's close to 7-to-1.

"The private sector should be a complement (to the police)," said Boris Saavedra, a national security professor at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington. "But in some countries, they're not the complement: They are the main actor."

While private security is growing worldwide, Latin America is the region where the boom directly relates to rising rates of homicide, kidnapping and extortion. Plagued by drug cartels and violent gangs, Latin America has surpassed Africa to claim the world's highest murder rate.

Private guards are part of everyday life in Latin American cities. With large guns and bullet-proof vests, they guard bakeries, even mattress deliveries, and ride shotgun in trucks carrying anything from Coca-Cola to cold cuts. They don earpieces and hide pistols under dark suits as they escort executives' children to school.

But they're not a solution to the rampant crime. Security guards only push crime to unguarded areas. They weaken the sense of community and widen the gap between the rich and poor in a region that already has the largest income disparity in the world, said Mexican international relations professor Rafael Fernandez de Castro, coordinator of the team that produced last year's U.N. report on Latin America security.

The guards-for-hire offer protection to the wealthy and middle-classes. Poorer residents get by however they can: forming vigilante groups or paying thugs to leave them alone.

"There's a huge lack of trust among people, so they act independently," Fernandez de Castro said. "That makes for fertile ground for organized crime."

Drug gangs rule through fear, often employing local police to work for them. One of the most egregious cases occurred in September, when officers in Mexico's southwestern Guerrero state allegedly handed 43 college students to a drug gang which, authorities say, likely killed them and incinerated their bodies.

The hills and deserts of rural Mexico are known as dumping grounds for the burned and mutilated bodies of narco victims. Commuters in Brazil face being robbed by gunmen on motorcycles who speed off with appalling ease. In a middle-class suburb of Buenos Aires, resident Jorge Kiss says he has been kidnapped once and assaulted three times in his home even though his neighborhood has its own private watchman.

Insecurity is so pervasive that 13 percent of Latin Americans — or nearly 75 million people — feel the need to move to escape crime, according to the United Nations. Fear of gang violence is one of the main forces that has sent thousands of Central Americans, including unaccompanied children, toward the U.S. border.

The lack of faith in official justice sometimes leads some victims to take matters into their own hands. Armed robbers in rush hour on a crowded Mexico City bus tried to steal a passenger's belongings several weeks ago and got pumped with bullets instead from the gun of a fellow passenger. One died on the floor of the bus, the other after he fled.

Lynchings have been recorded recently in places where they were previously unheard of, including Argentina. In central Guatemala, Alfonso Cu was pummeled to death by townsfolk who accused him of abusing a 3-year-old in a public bathroom.

"People feel powerless in the face of violence and act with instinct rather than reason," said Guatemala psychologist Marco Antonio Garavito.

The weak state of public police forces in part stems from the region's history. Officers across Latin America traditionally protected political regimes, not citizens. As the region transitioned to democracy, many police forces failed to adopt new practices — although countries such as Chile, Uruguay and Nicaragua are exceptions. Officers traditionally have been low skilled, low paid, and receive little training, making them susceptible to corruption.

Truly reforming public forces would require a long-term change in philosophy and training, the effects of which would not be seen for generations. So politicians instead choose quick-fix solutions that are visible to voters, such as spending on equipment and new patrol cars, said Gerardo de Lago, Latin America security and safety director for Laureate International Universities.

Such displays do nothing to rid departments of rogue cops, he said. "It's the same bad guys with new clothes."

The spread of private policing, however, comes with unpredictable results. Growth of the industry has outpaced government regulation, creating a "buyer-beware" market for those hiring security officers.

The quality of the forces varies widely. Some top guards are trained by former Israeli commandos and land middle-class salaries protecting the executives of major corporations. Others scrape by with far less. One 56-year-old retired Honduran police officer said he was handed a machete to guard a medical building, where he earned just $190 a month.

In general, however, private guards in Latin America are the most heavily armed in the world, with 10 times more weapons per employee than private forces in Western Europe, according to a 2011 survey by the Graduate Institute of Geneva.

"Poorly trained private security guards with shotguns and pistols only make the shootouts more dangerous to innocent bystanders," the U.S. State Department wrote last year in a report for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

Most of the region's security businesses operate without formal registration, meaning there are no accurate statistics on the number of killings and other crimes in which their guards become entangled.

In Buenos Aires, only 150 of 15,000 nightclub security guards had completed required training courses, according to U.N. Regional Center for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Costa Rica, 20 percent of security companies were investigated in 2012 for misconduct, including obstructing police work and general abuse.

In Venezuela, Julio Delgado, a guard who helped form an association of private security workers, estimates that 25 percent of his colleagues are committing violent crimes in their off hours.

The bodyguards of a Venezuelan congressman are accused of conspiring with Colombian paramilitaries to plan his October slaying. Authorities in Brazil said this month a 26-year-old security guard confessed to killing 39 people, shooting many of them randomly from his motorcycle while "cruising the streets."

In Mexico, the head of Elite Systems, a Guadalajara-based protection and alarm-service operation, Arnoldo Villa Sanchez, was alleged by the U.S. government to be security chief for the cartel led by Hector Beltran Leyva before the capo's arrest in October. Elite Systems, which has 150 employees, is also suspected of laundering drug proceeds. Villa Sanchez couldn't be reached for comment. The company's phone number is not working, and an email inquiry from the AP was not answered.

Even security experts find themselves at risk.

A neighborhood security guard was the main suspect in the 2011 robbery of the Bogota, Colombia, home of Daniel Linsker, who manages Latin America for the global security analysis company Control Risks.

"Even if you have security guards in buildings and take security precautions, things happen," Linsker said.

IPS is among the firms requiring background checks for unexplained income and lie-detector tests for prospective employees, according to the company, which is in the process of registering its staff with Mexico's national police database and is fully licensed. In an effort to maintain a clean force, IPS job postings specifically say "No former police. No military deserters."

Those Latin Americans without the resources to hire their own security guards do whatever they can to give themselves some sense of safety — including paying off the very groups that threaten them.

In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, criminal gangs originally formed in United States prisons in the 1970s and '80s, have become the de facto rulers of many neighborhoods. Their ranks continually replenished with local recruits and deportees from the U.S., the gangs murder, rape and rob, while extorting businesses for protection.

"They're the law," said Josefa Martinez, whose neighborhood north of San Salvador is controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha gang. "If you can, you give them a little so they leave you alone. Almost everyone gives them money. ... You have to learn to live that way."

In Guatemala, middle class neighborhoods are enclosed like prisons, with high walls, razor wire and guard shacks at iron gates. In one subdivision, where an iron gate obstructs what's supposed to be a public street, a cheerful banner promoting aerobics and Zumba classes hangs below a stern black-and-white sign warning that all buses and delivery trucks will be searched.

"Nobody's secure," said Raul Perdomo, a 44-year-old banker, who lives in a gated community on the outskirts of El Salvador's capital. "We have security guards at the entrance, so it's quiet. But outside it's different."


Associated Press writers Hannah Dreier in Caracas, Sonia Perez D. in Guatemala City, Marcos Aleman in San Salvador, and Debora Rey in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.


Katherine Corcoran on Twitter: http://twitter.com/kathycorcoran