Guatemala gangs to bus drivers: pay a fee, or risk death

Guatemala gangs have for years extorted bus drivers for protection money. In 2009 alone, 146 drivers and 60 drivers' assistants were murdered.

By , Correspondent

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    Bystanders watched as police in Guatemala City investigated the scene of a robbery attempt on a bus April 8 in which one passenger was killed and two assailants were shot by police. Bus drivers must pay Guatemala's gangs a high protection fee, and even then they risk death in some neighborhoods.
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The week before he was killed, Rogelio Chivalan paid gangs a protection fee of $240 to drive his bus safely through neighborhoods they controlled.

They killed him anyway, with four shots to the head while he drove his bus during morning rush hour in August 2007.

"They'll kill you if you pay. They'll kill you if you don't pay. It's nothing for [the gangs]," says his widow, Ingrid Janeht Escobar. "For us, everything changed that day."

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At the time, Mr. Chivalan's death was a front-page story in Guatemalan tabloids – copies of which Ms. Escobar carries in a discolored cloth bag slung over her shoulder. Since then, the killing of bus drivers has become a footnote in this country's violent downward spiral, in which Escobar has seen neighbors become widows.

Around the country, 512 bus drivers have been killed since 2006 in a scourge on the country's only public transportation system. Last year alone, 146 drivers and 60 drivers' assistants were murdered.

Gangs extort both the drivers and the private companies that own the buses for "protection" fees. When drivers or companies don't pay – or, as was the case with Chivalan, sometimes even when they do pay – gangs kill the driver and rob the bus.

"It's a net of extortion carried out against [the] public transportation" system by gangs, says Carlos Castresana, a Spanish investigator who heads the United Nations-sponsored Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which investigates organized crime. (See story on the commission.) "They have no respect for life. They are very deadly.... Here the [gangs] have the power that terrorist groups have in other countries."

Communities beset by poverty and a lack of opportunities feed both the job rolls of bus companies and the gangs' memberships. Some young men seek jobs as bus drivers because few other jobs are available. Others choose gang life, which provides a sort of family for disenchanted youths.

Gangs, or maras, as they are known in the region, began to spread in Central America in the 1980s when men living in Los Angeles – where they had learned gang culture – were deported to El Salvador.

The gangs spread from there, carrying monikers like Mara 18 (a reference to a street in San Salvador) or Mara Salvatrucha 13, a supposed homage to the founding members of the gang, who were supposed to be as wise as an old trout – a "trucha."

A 2007 United Nations study estimated that there were 69,000 gang members in Central America, roughly 14,000 of whom lived in Guatemala.

In a region also marked by drug trafficking, experts say gangs are responsible for only a portion of the region's high murder rate – about 800 percent higher than that of the United States.

Yet their rise has mirrored the region's climb to what the United Nations called "the world's most violent region" in a 2009 report.

"In terms of violence, it's worse now than during the civil war," which killed 200,000 from 1960 to 1996, says Juan Carlos Morales, who drives one of the 4,000 buses – a rusting, diesel-cloud belching, former US school bus.

Morales, who has driven for 20 years, says a dozen drivers he knew were killed in the past three years. He pays about $90 a week for protection, but gets robbed so frequently that he considers it part of the job. Each month, he takes $150 home to a family of seven.

"It's not enough to live," he says, "but I can't find another job."

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