The Unregulated and Threatening Growth of Private Security in Latin America and the Caribbean

Latin America and the Caribbean has recently seen impressive social and economic gains, yet despite a growing middle class and narrowing poverty gap insecurity remains the number one preoccupation of the regions citizens, with perceptions of insecurity at their highest since 2006 (LAPOP, 2014, p. 161) ( The World Bank, 2012). This insecurity, sparked by rising crime rates and coupled with ineffective law enforcement, has led to an exponential growth and demand for private security, with increasing levels in every country of the region in the last decade (Dammert, 2008, p. 2). The formal private security industry is projected to be worth $244 billion globally by 2016, $30 billion of which accounts for Latin America. While the annual worldwide growth rate is around 7 percent, in Latin America it is 9 percent (UNODC, 2014, p. 2) (New York Times, 2014).  It is estimated that nearly 4 million citizens throughout Latin America and the Caribbean work in the private security sector, establishing private security as a commodity in high demand (Dammert, 2008, p. 3) (UN, 2013, p. 6).

Central America in particular is part of this explosive growth, with private security guards outnumbering police in every country except El Salvador (UNODC, 2012, p. 71). In Honduras, private security guards outnumber police by nearly 5 to 1, with the vast majority unregistered and illegal (UN, 2013, p. 7). Private Security Companies (PSCs) vast numbers and in some cases use of higher caliber and higher tech weapons than police not only threatens the authority of police but, in some cases, has shifted the monopoly of legitimate violence out of the state’s hands (OAS, 2012, p. 73). The problem, however, does not lay in the presence of private security but rather in the absence of effective regulations and controls by the state. The scope and scale of private security growth throughout Latin America and the Caribbean  is therefore paralleled by the limited state capacity to monitor the training, hiring and actions of such actors.

The growth and dangers associated with unbridled and unregulated private security has not gone unnoticed by the international community. The Montreux Document came into being in 2008 and highlights good practices and obligations, such as respecting international humanitarian law, protecting human rights and ensuring criminal accountability, for private military and security companies (ICRC and FDFA, 2008, p. 31, 33-35).

Another Swiss sponsored initiative is The International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC) which aims to clarify international standards and improve oversight and accountability in relation to PSCs. Not only establishing principles related to the actions of such firms, it also targets the proper management of such companies, including how they hire personnel and manage weapons (ICoC, 2015).

While such international agreements are important steps in regulating PSCs the difficulty lies in the fact that they are neither legally binding nor accepted by all states. Also, the implementation of the principles and guidelines are not always effectively carried out by individual states. At the national level, many countries have no laws providing a legal framework for PSCs and the countries that have passed laws to regulate the industry lack the mechanisms to effectively apply and enforce the laws (Dammert, 2008, p. 3).

The majority of private security guards are poorly trained, in both conflict resolution and the safe handling of firearms, and under paid, lacking the insurance benefits entitled to people working in such sectors. The latter of these makes them increasingly susceptible to bribery and committing crimes themselves (Dammert, 2008, p. 2). While the entire region is plagued by these issues, the specific case of Honduras offers insight into the truly troubling aspect of rampant and unregulated growth of private security within a country.

Honduras currently has no mechanisms or information systems in place to control or monitor PSCs and their personnel. There are also no information systems for citizens, providing accurate knowledge on authorized as well as unauthorized companies and where and how they operate (OAS, 2012, p. 138-139). The absence of any coordination between private security firms and the National Police in regards to firearm authorization as well as proper training also highlights the dangerous situation. The UN Report of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination: Mission to Honduras in 2013 acknowledged that Honduras’s “existing legal and regulatory framework falls short of international standards and its implementation is hampered by the lack of institutional capacity of the authorities responsible for regulating PSCs” (UN, 2013, p. 2). Moreover, domestic law has yet to be amended to align with international conventions the country has signed and international recommendations have yet to be implemented.

As seen in Honduras, many states fall short in regulating private security firms and this, coupled with weak law enforcement and high rates of insecurity and crime, has resulted in private security companies becoming powerful entities operating outside the states control and often with impunity (UN, 2013, p. 2). According to The Montreux Document, PSCs must respect national law as well as international humanitarian and human rights law. This, however, must be reinforced, monitored and regulated by the state. Given the current weakness in this aspect throughout Latin America and the Caribbean steps must be taken to curb the growth of unregulated private security.

Regulatory legal frameworks need to be established that outline the responsibilities of both governments and the industry. Specifically, laws and regulations must be strengthened concerning the licensing of PSCs and the institutional capacity must be improved to administer licensing while monitoring already licensed companies (UN, 2013, p. 2). Social protection for workers in the sector must be expanded while entry requirements and training guidelines must be introduced in coordination with national police and/or armed forces; including ongoing evaluation and certification (OAS, 2012, p. 49). Citizens and businesses must also be adequately informed on the services provided by private security, how they can act, the weapons they carry as well as whether their firm is authorized or has been sanctioned and if so for what (OAS, 2012, p. 49). Finally, the capacity of the police and court to effectively investigate and if necessary prosecute crimes carried out by private security personnel needs to be affirmed in order to prevent impunity and the perpetuation of crime and violence through the actions of those hired to prevent it.


Dammert, Lucia. (March 2008). Private Security: An Answer to Public Security needs in Urban Centers?. Department of Public Security, Organization of American States. Available from

International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC). (2015). About the ICoC. Available from

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). (September 17, 2008). The Montreux Document On pertinent international legal obligations and good practices for States related to operations of private military and security companies during armed conflict. Available from

Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), AmericasBarometer, Vanderbilt University. (2014). The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2014: Democratic Governance across 10 Years of the AmericasBarometer. Available from

New York Times. (November 27, 2014). Private Firms Filling Latin America’s Security Gap. Available from

Organization of American States (OAS), Secretariat for Multidimensional Security. Un Examen del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Ciudadana de Honduras. March 2012: Washington D.C.

The World Bank. (December 13, 2012). Central America: Private sector makes fighting crime its business. Available from

United Nations (UN). (August 5, 2013). Report of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination, Addendum: Mission to Honduras. Available from

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). (September 2012). Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment. Available from

UNODC. (April 2014). State Regulation concerning Civilian Private Security Services and their Contribution to Crime Prevention and Community Safety. Criminal Justice Handbook Series. Available from

One thought on “The Unregulated and Threatening Growth of Private Security in Latin America and the Caribbean

  1. Pingback: The Economics of Crime in the Caribbean

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