Though violence has decreased in Guatemala, recent deadly attacks against buses show that public transport remains under siege by gangs, which have increased their extortion demands as smaller groups get into the game.
Just last week in Guatemala City, a bus robbery turned into a shootout that left one of two assailants dead and injured the other. In another incident shots were fired into a bus, injuring the driver and a passenger, Prensa Libre reported. And seven people were hurt when a homemade bomb exploded at a bus stop. Authorities said the attack -- carried out by a 19-year-old woman who lost both her arms in the explosion -- was related to extortion payments.
After the bombing, drivers in Guatemala City told Prensa Libre that the number of extortion payments demanded by gangs has increased in the past two years, as more "cliques," or sub-groups of gangs, demand payments for crossing into the patches of territory they control. Previously, drivers had to pay only the major gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18. Much of the violence takes place along the same routes in the heart of the capital city or its outskirts.
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In the first two weeks of 2019, eight people were killed on public transport, including the driver of a motorcycle taxi who was shot and killed by his passenger, according to Prensa Libre.
Violence in public transport is not a new phenomenon. Between 2010 and 2017, such attacks killed more than 2,000 people, including bus and taxi drivers, bus assistants (known as “brochas”), passengers, transportation service owners, among others. Last year, another 200 people were killed.
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Despite Guatemala seeing a general reduction in homicides in recent years, violence aimed at public transport has continued, taking the lives of passengers and making drivers’ jobs some of the most dangerous in the world.
As far back as 2011, InSight Crime investigated how the poor regulation of some $35 million in government subsidies to bus companies -- without which most Guatemalans could not afford to ride the bus -- led to gangs extorting these companies. It was believed that the “brochas,” who often have ties to the gangs, tipped off gang leaders about the extra cash. When bus operators refused to pay, their drivers were threatened or murdered.
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Meanwhile, the Guatemalan government’s later attempt to secure transport through the construction of a central bus system that used electronic payments was beset by corruption. Around 3,150 vehicles were destined for the system, but only 455 were ever imported. Card readers were left untouched in a warehouse.
Authorities have tried to provide extra patrols on bus routes when violence flares up, but the current, chaotic fleet of some 3,000 public buses is nearly impossible to police. Other forms of transport, including minibuses, taxis, and “colectivos,” or taxis that pick up several people, have also been plagued by extortion rackets.
Edgar Guerra, the human rights ombudsman in charge of public transport in Guatemala, told InSight Crime that the gang attacks have become more violent as the number of individual cliques demanding extortion payments has increased.
“Each clique is making demands now,” he said. “This is not only putting the drivers in more danger but also passengers.”
The government’s response to the violence is always “reactive,” he said. Yet the disorderly and dilapidated conditions of Guatemala’s public transport system have provided the perfect conditions for crime to flourish. Within it “there is no control,” Guerra said, adding that there is little political will to overhaul the system, which would require massive investment and also the cooperation of multiple government institutions.
The extortion of public transport generates nearly $40 million (300 million quetzals) annually, Guerra said, citing a 2015 survey of workers. With that kind of money at stake, the gangs will continue trafficking in terror and the transport system will remain under siege.
“The rate of homicides has gotten better,” he said. “But in public transport, there has been an increase in attacks and threats. Drivers and other transportation workers would rather pay extortions than die.”