Guatemala sends troops to fight gangs in 2 high-crime areas

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GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemala’s new president announced a state of alert for two municipalities with high crime rates to combat gang activity Friday, a measure that allows the deployment of military troops.

Alejandro Giammattei said it will remain in place for seven days in Mixco and San Juan Sacatepequez, both of which are on the outskirts of the capital, and the army and National Civil Police will be tasked with arresting gang members operating in the area.

“The battle begins against crime, killings, extortion and the organized groups of gangs,” said Giammattei, who took office Tuesday.

The Defense Ministry said 1,000 soldiers were assigned to the operations.

Under Guatemalan law, the measure allows for the militarization of public services, restricting public gatherings, prohibiting the circulation or parking of vehicles in determined areas and barring the carrying of firearms.

The decree was signed by all of Giammattei’s Cabinet ministers and took effect with its publication in the official gazette.

Carlos Menocal, a former interior minister, applauded the measure and said it targets gangs in two areas where they have near-total control over the communities and extortion has been on the rise.

“But you also have to promote a culture of denouncing (crime) on the part of the population so that the gang members can be captured,” Menocal said.

On the campaign trail and at his inauguration, Giammattei, a conservative physician said he would present a bill to lawmakers that would declare gangs to be terrorist groups.

“The rule of law, protection of investment and promotion of jobs will be the planks of our government, but that will be achieved through security,” Giammattei said.

That proposal has yet to be submitted.

Troops have been used for domestic security before. In March 2018, soldiers were withdrawn from deployments supporting police and reinforcing borders.

According to government figures, Guatemala recorded a homicide rate of 21.9 per 100,000 inhabitants last year, which would put it somewhere in the 20 worst in the world, though below Central American neighbors El Salvador and Honduras.

Guatemala’s police force has been boosted in recent years, from 36,200 in 2016 to 42,500 today.

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