Over 400 people died in attacks against Guatemala’s public transport sector last year, violence that is typically linked to extortion and organized crime. However, the government’s response thus far may not be enough to stem the killings.
Every day, bus driver Ricardo Lopez wakes up at 5 a.m., gives his wife and three-year-old son a kiss, crosses himself, and leaves for work. However, he never knows if he will see his loved ones again, because the company he works for is being extorted.
Like Ricardo (whose name was changed for safety reasons), many bus drivers in Guatemala’s second-largest city, Quetzaltenango, are afraid to board their vehicles, because the job is becoming increasingly dangerous — as is the case in many cities. Seven bus drivers were killed in Quetzaltenango in 2014 alone, and authorities registered more than 10 attacks in all. So far this year, one bus driver has been killed in Quetzaltenango, but they are not the only ones affected by the violence.
Besides drivers, those who use public transportation are also at risk. One case involved Mariana Zeledon and Almengor Gomez, both age 58, who were taken by firefighters to a city hospital with several bullet wounds, after bus assistant Rafael Rojas was killed while traveling towards the town of Olintepeque.
Since 2009, extortion of the transport sector has become a way for organized crime to obtain illicit funds, a type of “insurance.” The capital, Guatemala City, sees 60 percent of all attacks, with the other 40 percent in other departments.
Quetzaltenango registers the second highest number of extortion cases in the country, according to Mario Bosos, an assistant to the Attorney General’s Office (or the Public Ministry, as it is known in Guatemala). He added these crimes are committed against bus drivers, businessmen, and can even occur in houses.
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“The reason is because [a detention facility] is located in Quetzaltenango, where the majority of extortion calls are made,” Bosos explained.
According to official reports, gangs are behind 10 percent of extortion cases, while the other 90 percent involve individuals who are trying to scare their victims into paying up. Authorities have little control over these activities.
Extortionists threaten business owners, but the employees are the ones who suffer the reprisals. In Ricardo’s case, he said he only risks working as a bus driver because of the high unemployment rate, and he has no other options.
A Worrying Situation
Despite victims filing reports, extortion is increasing because many of these cases go unresolved, according to Estuardo Miranda, the vice president of Quetzaltenango’s Association of Public Transportation. The situation is even more difficult for the owners and drivers of inter-city buses, because the extortion fees are higher. Some bus drivers, who preferred to have their names omitted for this story out of fear of reprisal, indicated they are constantly threatened and they prefer to pay the fee rather than face the alternative. There have been a few times that drivers have halted bus services as a form of protest, demanding that the government dismantle these criminal groups. Nevertheless, the government is taking increasingly fewer actions to combat the crime.
Edwin Ardiano, head of the 41st Precinct of Guatemala’s civilian police force (PNC), said authorities have initiated a security offensive in Quetzaltenango and that, along with special forces, police have conducted investigations that led to the arrest of extortionists. Ardiano also said drivers should immediately file a report so that authorities can more effectively investigate extortion calls.
In the meantime, Ricardo continues working for the bus company and risking his life behind the steering wheel.
Extortion at the National Level
According to an office that deals with public transport users at the Inspector General’s Office on Human Rights, last year saw the following deaths in Guatemala’s 22 departments: 102 bus drivers, 42 mini-bus drivers, 75 motorcycles taxi drivers, 35 taxi drivers, 33 support staff, 102 public transport users, 16 suspected robbers, as well as six private and public security officers. In total, 412 deaths, the majority of which resulted from isolated extortion cases. So far in 2015, there have been 42 deaths.
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According to security analyst Julio Jerez, the problem of extortion is rooted in the lack of long-term government policies to address this issue. “The changing of administrations stalls reform,” he said. “Government agencies should be working on finding ways to reduce unemployment and prevent organized crime from gaining too much ground. In addition, the disintegration of the family structure pushes adolescents to join criminal groups.”
Edgar Guerra of the Inspector General’s Office on Human Rights said that on a national scale, the number of extortion operations has exceeded state capacities to effectively combat this crime.
Anti-Extortion ‘Wolf’ Force Not Enough
Guatemala’s Interior Ministry has implemented a plan to combat extortion — however, it is concentrated in Guatemala City. “We have three hotlines specifically for extortion, and there are 1,400 police patrolling the most dangerous sectors of the capital that can respond immediately,” Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez said.
This special police force is known as the Wolf Force (Fuerza Lobo), and consists of specialized personnel roaming the principal avenues of Guatemala City in pairs, one driving while the other travels on foot, ensuring there is no suspicious activity on the buses. They sometimes carry out surprise operations on passengers, drivers, and drivers’ assistants. Nevertheless, there is no such special force in Quetzaltenango. Due to the violence there, many are now calling for a similar type of security force in Quetzaltenango, so that it isn’t just one sector of the country benefitting from these types of measures.
*This article was written by Fred Rivera, as part of the Investigative Reporting Initiative in the Americas by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), in partnership with Connectas. See Spanish original here.