A series of arrests in Guatemala has brought down a criminal group, known as Los Patrones, made up of police officers working as drug dealers and hitmen, showing how the country has not been spared from the growing crisis of police criminality across the region.

The network of Los Patrones operated across southern and western Guatemala, supported by local policemen. “Each [member] controlled their own drug distribution point, while the police agents facilitated the transportation of the illicit substances in exchange for economic benefit,” read a statement by the Attorney General’s Office.

Among the 15 group members captured in Saturday’s operation were the group’s leaders,  Miguel Antonio Solán Solis and Sonia Haydee Lainez Aguilar de Salán, a married couple known as “El Patrón” and “La Patrona.”

Donil Vinicio Orozco López, alias “El Más Chingón” (“The Most Awesome”), who headed up the group’s network of police collaborators was also arrested.

300 members of the National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) participated in the operation, which included 30 raids in the departments of Guatemala, San Marcos, Huehuetenango and Escuintla.

InSight Crime Analysis

The dismantling of Los Patrones is the latest operation to reveal the extent of police collaboration with criminal networks in Guatemala. In August 2018, eight policemen were arrested for participation in the “Comando Silencioso” network, which carried out illegal raids in order to steal cash and valuables. The network was associated with the criminal group “Los Marrocos,” which had previously recruited police officers to seize and resell drug shipment.

The alarming incidence of police criminality in Guatemala reflects structural failures within the PNC that appear to have worsened over the last year. Low pay and a lack of opportunities for professional advancement make it ever more tempting for officers to supplement their earnings with criminal activities, a problem exacerbated by corruption and cronyism within the PNC.

In January, a report by the Coalition for Citizen Security and the Centre for National Economic Research revealed that, of 167 police promotions in the period January-August 2018, 81 percent evidenced irregularities.

Trends in security policy are compounding the phenomenon. A 2018 report by the Guatemalan Studies Center warned that increasing militarization of public security, particularly since the arrival of Enrique Degenhart as Interior Minister in February 2018, risked further devaluing the PNC and harming the professionalization of the police force.

The problem of police collaboration with organized crime is far from unique to Guatemala. Parallel examples across the region include Brazil’s Escritorio do Crime (Office of Crime), a militia group comprised largely of current and former members of the security forces. In Mexico, the phenomenon has reached epidemic proportions, with 2018 witnessing the decommissioning of entire police forces in Tehuacán and Acapulco due to alleged links with drug trafficking.

The structural factors driving police criminality bear striking similarities across the region, which varying attempts at police reform have failed to resolve. The case of Los Patrones demonstrates that the struggle to build strong, trustworthy police forces remains one of Latin America’s most intractable security problems.