Bus drivers fall victim to brutal Guatemalan gangs

AP News
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Posted: Dec 21, 2009 3:20 AM

Bus driver Mynor Gonzalez ignored the threats: "200 quetzales a week, or we'll kill you." He knew drivers who didn't pay the roughly $24 "protection" fee had been murdered, but always on other routes. He knew his job _ once considered secure and well-paying for Guatemala's poor _ had become deadly.

Then it happened on his route. The gangs used his friend, driver Miguel Angel Chacon, 34, to show they meant business.

"He saw them approaching the bus, so he jammed on the brakes and started running toward the back," said Gonzalez, 30. "They shot him twice in the back, right there in the aisle in front of all the passengers."

Gunmen have killed more than 170 bus drivers this year to scare them and transportation companies into paying extortion fees that fuel the country's multimillion-dollar organized crime network.

It's a small number of deaths given Guatemala's roughly 6,200 murders a year _ a homicide rate that puts the Central American country among the world's 10 most dangerous, according to U.N. crime studies. But the public execution of bus drivers _ often witnessed by as many as 50 passengers _ adds a new level of brutality to an already terrorized nation.

There is no viable public transit in Guatemala City outside of the 8,000 buses that carry about 1 million people daily in this capital of 3 million. Passengers have no choice but to ride.

"You are always scared that the bus you take is the one that they will target and maybe you will get a stray bullet," said Damaris Lopez, 21, a student who regularly takes a route where 10 drivers have been shot. "But I don't have a car. How else can I get around?"

Drivers and transportation companies have no choice but to pay.

Congressman Anibal Salguero owns a bus company and says he shells out an average of about $60 a week per bus.

"I'm a congressman, I could have them arrested," Salguero said. "But then what? Have the gangs take it out on my drivers?"

Even jailing doesn't work. Gangs run extortion rings from their cells, said Rony Lopez, a prosecutor who heads the organized crime unit.

"They smuggle in cell phones, pay or terrorize prison guards into turning off the signal blockers and have people working outside to collect the money and carry out the murder of drivers," Lopez said.

It started small about 5 years ago, with gang members extorting $1 to $2 a day in protection fees on individual routes. But it quickly grew into an organized racket once criminals realized they could rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At first, assassins would hop a crowded bus, insult the driver and then shoot him in the head to set an example.

Then buses took on armed guards. So criminals would ride two to a motorcycle and drive up alongside the bus. The rider on the back would shoot the driver through the window.

Now that the government has banned more than one person riding on a motorcycle, children deliver cell phones to drivers who then receive extortion calls telling them how much and where to leave the money.

The gangs use children so they face lesser penalties if caught.

"We are victims of 14- and 15-year-old kids. Those are the ones that the gangs send out to murder us," said Otto Estrada, 35.

Once one gang gets money off a route, others come in to collect a share.

Drivers earn about $90 a week, higher than the national minimum wage of $50. But up to $60 of that goes to pay "protection."

Estrada, who covers the 20-mile (30-kilometer) route between Amatitlan and Guatemala City, said that together, he and the bus owner pay about $90 a week to three different gangs.

But he keeps driving.

"I come from a poor town. I dare you to go and find any job there. There are none. That's why those like me who only know how to drive keep working," Estrada said. "Some weeks I pay more in extortion than what I earn."

Luis Gomez, head of the largest bus owners organization, says every killing makes it harder to find drivers.

"We have routes where drivers are working double shifts of about 13 hours because we just can't find drivers," he said.

The murder rate has become so high, drivers' widows formed a group and recently won pensions from the government _ about $65 a month for every dependent child a slain driver leaves behind.

So far 78 widows have sought pensions.

Meanwhile, Mynor Gonzalez has taken another job and only drives on Sundays on one of the few safe routes not controlled by gangs.

"I was lucky," he said. "Other drivers are old or have no education. Nowadays employers ask for a high school diploma for any job."