Much of the headlines in the region about organized crime are focused on the chase, capture, and sometimes death of infamous criminal leaders. But there are many more subtle battles in motion, which have a far greater impact on every day life in these countries than the fight between the mega-cartels and their rivals, or the government’s efforts to decapitate the most well-known drug traffickers.

Take, for example, the adventure it must be to ride a public bus in Guatemala. Since 2007, over 500 bus drivers have been killed in violent incidents in Guatemala making driving a bus in that Central American nation arguably the most dangerous profession on the planet. The violence is not limited to the drivers. In 2010, while 155 bus drivers were killed, another 54 bus assistants (so-called ‘brochas’), 71 passengers and 14 presumed criminals were also murdered.

The presumption is that these people are victims of an extortion scheme hatched by the country’s most feared gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (18). These gangs, or so-called ‘maras,’ collect “taxes” from the local businesses, their neighbors and transportation companies.

Some of this extortion is run from jails where the policy of imprisoning mara leaders and their “soldiers” has led to a proliferation of gang activity and mara control of the prisons. The violence has terrified hundreds of thousands who use the transportation system daily. The government has created a special police unit and has several public prosecutors working on extortion and murder rings, but it has had little impact.

What’s more, the gang element is only part of a larger story that says as much about organized crime as it does about the corrupt state and society that feed it. Indeed, pick apart the extortion scheme of public bus companies and you will expose a complicated food chain that depends on it.

To understand the violence we have to start in an expected place: the government’s Ministry of Transport. The ministry gives approximately $35 million in subsidies to the bus companies. Without the subsidy, most Guatemalans would not be able to afford the bus, which costs the company an estimated three times the current ticket price.

However, government investigators say the state does not properly regulate the bus companies’ use of the subsidy, allowing them to pocket much of the money. Investigators believe it was the ‘brochas,’ who are often members or loosely associated with the gangs, who tipped the gangs’ leaders off to the economic opportunity.

Coordinating from jail, the gang leaders extort the bus companies per route, demanding a certain amount per week per bus on each route. Investigators say the rate is about Q200 ($25) per week per bus. There are as many as 200 buses on any one line, which is Q40,000 ($500) per week per bus route.

Investigators say the gang leaders are making thousands of dollars a week, which feeds the chain. Some of the money they distribute to their family, girlfriends and close associates. Some of the money goes to them directly, normally smuggled into the prisons by girlfriends or wives. Some of the money goes to the police and prison guards who allow the money to move smoothly to the various parts of the chain.

Some money goes to bus drivers, which accounts for a portion of their murders, investigators say. Indeed, the government says that only 45 percent of the deaths of bus drivers can be attributed to gangs that are extorting them; the drivers pay the consequences when their boss does not pay. But the other 55 percent can be attributed to multiple factors, authorities say, including the drivers’ own involvement in the scheme.

What is most stunning about this example is the nearly complete absence of government action on every level. To be sure, the government arguably starts the chain of events that leads to the murders by not regulating the subsidies. At every facet thereafter someone appears to be trying to benefit from the initial absence of state regulation: from the gang leaders and their families; to the ‘brochas’ and possibly the drivers; and finally to the police and prison guards. No authority figure breaks the chain. In fact, they look to benefit from it.

The irony for the bus company owners, of course, is that while they rightfully want the government to beef up security for their bus lines and along their routes, they have not been clamouring for a better regulatory system on the subsidies. To be fair, even without the subsidy, the gangs would probably be extorting these businesses anyway, albeit their profits would be much less and the stakes much lower. Indeed, gangs do not kill nearly as many truck drivers from businesses they regularly extort.

This phenomenon is not limited to Guatemala. In El Salvador, maras extort bus companies for revenue and attack the buses last year when the government implemented a new anti-gang law. In Honduras, the gangs are extorting the buses in Tegucigalpa and other major cities. In Colombia, street gangs have long extorted food purveyors and public transport companies that receive a similar subsidy from the Colombia government to keep the prices low.

And these activities have made buses targets throughout the region, most recently in Guatemala, where alleged gang members have used rudimentary explosives to make their point.

Notes:

This report is based on a visit InSight made to Guatemala in January - February 2010, during which time the author interviewed local security officials and, for this case, the lead investigator from the Attorney Generals Office. See also the ombudsmen’s office of human rights (Procuradoria de los Derechos Humanos) for statistics.