GUATEMALA CITY — In the city, guns will soon outnumber people. In the countryside, heavily armed private security forces are becoming more common than electricity and phone service.

Crime has gotten so out of hand that 4,000 rifle-toting Guatemalan soldiers took to the streets Saturday to aid an overworked police force.

Even the vice president, a camera-shy bureaucrat known here mainly for blending into the furniture, surprised Guatemalans by appearing on television May 29 to plead for the crime wave to abate, if even just slightly.

But for many Guatemalans none of it is enough.

There are no reliable figures for the crime rate, but gun sales give a gauge of how rampant fear of crime is. In the last six months, purchases of security services and weapons are up 50 percent on rates that were already among the highest in Central America.

Already in Guatemala City there are 1.5 million guns, about as many firearms as people. Even conservative estimates show guns will outnumber people by the end of the summer.

"I can't keep any popular models on the shelves," said Ricardo Umana, owner of Gun Depot, a small store in a wealthy suburban Guatemala City neighborhood, packed from floor to ceiling with handguns, shotguns and assault weapons.

"Most of my customers used to be hunters, but now everyone everywhere is buying guns," Umana said.

The capital sports concealed-weapon laws more lenient than Texas. Security guards brandishing assault rifles and shotguns guard every bank, electronics store and shopping mall and can even be found keeping an eye on McDonald's in some of the city's rougher neighborhoods.

Outside Guatemala City, where guns have become harder to find since the end of the 36-year civil war in 1996, residents have begun forming armed groups, known as "security juntas," aimed at scaring would-be criminals out of town.

"There are now easily more of these groups than there are police officers," said Cesar Saldavar, police chief for rural Peten, Guatemala's northernmost state. "All the guns left over from the war are going into the hands of groups organizing to kill and frighten criminals."

In the western, mostly Indian state of Quiche, authorities report that security juntas have arisen in the region's five largest municipalities and are growing.

"We really don't know how many guns there are here in Quiche now. We may be up to civil war levels," a police spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity. "We have to be worried a little."

The groups serve mainly to intimidate potential criminals, but that doesn't stop citizens from taking matters into their own hands: Lynchings have become common throughout rural Guatemala.

Even as Guatemalans mobilize to protect themselves, some say the simplest way to end crime problems would be to return to the country's dictatorial past.

"Everyone says if (former dictator Gen. Efrain) Rios Montt took power again all of the criminals would flee, that they would leave the country," said Enrique Lucero, 41, as he waited for a bus in an affluent southern Guatemala City neighborhood where he works as a housepainter. "The general doesn't tolerate crime, and everyone knows that." Rios Montt, the current president of the legislature, ruled Guatemala with an iron fist from 1982-83, an 18-month tenure in which he oversaw arguably the bloodiest days of the civil war. The December 1996 peace accords finally brought fighting between state forces and leftist guerillas to an end, but only after some 200,000 Guatemalans had been killed.

Guatemala's 1985 constitution bars Rios Montt, 71, from assuming Guatemala's highest office again. But President Alfonso Portillo, who is a member of the party Rios Montt founded and campaigned closely with the ex-dictator during last fall's elections, is lobbying for a special congressional session to repeal the constitution — and clear the way for another Rios Montt presidency.

Rios Montt has refused to talk to the news media about apparent attempts to return him to power. But he supported a new law that lets an army that once went to war against its own people to take to the streets again, this time to protect them.

"Fighting this kind of violence in whatever manner we can is a good idea," Rios Montt said.