GUATEMALA CITY Two months ago, Leon Rach, 22, tended corn with his family in Chatela, an isolated mountain village. Today, he wields a shotgun for $52 a week as a guard at a big-city ice cream shop with flavors like mango and tamarind.
One of his predecessors robbed the place.
Experts say Guatemala has as many as 100,000 private security guards. As in the rest of Central America, they outnumber the police and army. Most are poorly educated, badly paid but well armed. Every year, an unknown number turn to crime, experts say.
The proliferation of private guards is a byproduct of poverty in a country that emerged from a 36-year war in 1996 but is still plagued by a deadly combination of guns, violence and a lack of opportunity for all but a tiny, wealthy elite.
A growing drug trade, organized crime and gangs have fueled soaring rates of violent crime. More than 6,300 people were murdered last year in this country of 13 million, and murder is the leading cause of death for young men. Shootings are brazen and public, often executed in broad daylight by skilled hit men.
But experts don't think more men with guns is the answer.
"The private guards are one of the biggest security threats Guatemala faces," said Carlos Castresana, the U.N.-appointed head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, a team of 150 investigators helping Guatemala fight illegal armed groups and their crimes.
"If you have 100,000 armed men under no control, and 50 million bullets consumed a year, you have another kind of war," he said. "If they don't control arms here, there will never be peace."
Private guards are in such demand because "any petty criminal can easily get a gun," he said. "Since public institutions don't function, people turn to private solutions. We need to break this vicious cycle."
Guatemalans are accustomed to the silent sentry with the sawed-off shotgun. On a recent day in Guatemala City, a guard watched diners eat salad at a vegetarian restaurant. A guard stood in the entryway of a private school next door. At the corner cafe, one carefully scrutinized entering customers while businessmen ordered latte.
Many business owners eye the guards warily.
Recently, a young guard hired to prevent a wave of lethal bus robberies accidentally discharged his weapon, wounding himself and a bus attendant.
In January, police arrested four private security guards suspected in the deaths of two Korean factory proprietors whose bodies were discovered buried along the highway to the posh Mayan Golf Club. Two of the guards were 17.
Sofia Canel, the manager of the ice cream shop robbed by a previous guard, conceded, "It happens all the time."
"We're always afraid. We don't know them," Canel said. "But sometimes people come in pretending to be customers to assault our clients. Without security, we can't defend ourselves."
A 2008 report commissioned by the Salvadoran National Council for Public Security estimated that the cost of violence in Central America had risen to $6.5 billion by 2006. The report, which tallied health costs, economic losses, and public and private security, said the annual cost to Guatemala and El Salvador had reached more than $2 billion each.