Could Guatemala City’s Smart Bus System Cut Extortion?

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Guatemala City’s replacement of its old buses with a more secure system where drivers do not handle cash could help cut down on extortion of bus companies and reduce violence on public transportation.

The murder of three bus company employees in Guatemala City on July 25 is just the latest example of the dangers faced by public transit workers and passengers in Guatemala. Extortion of bus drivers and companies by criminal gangs in Guatemala has become so pervasive and violent that a 2011 InSight Crime investigation concluded that driving a bus in Guatemala may be the most dangerous job in the world. According to the Human Rights Ombudsman’s 2011 Annual Report, 1,368 people were murdered on Guatemala’s public transportation in the past six years: 780 drivers, 255 bus assistants (“brochas”), and 249 passengers. Some 59 percent of violence on buses took place in the country’s capital.

The government pays around $35 million in subsidies each year to bus companies in order to make transportation affordable for most Guatemalans, but there is little oversight of bus safety, rates, or routes. The old buses, which are often reused US school buses, run on a cash payment system that makes extortion easy. Drivers and passengers face violence when gang members board buses to collect payment or punish those who refuse to pay.

The extortion schemes are typically run by gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, whose leaders oversee the operations from within Guatemala’s prisons. Government investigators say that the gangs charge bus companies around 200 quetzales ($25) per week per bus, adding up to around Q40,000 ($5,000) per week per bus route. This system provides a major source of revenue for gangs, who collected an estimated $1.5 million from bus companies in 2010. The bus companies themselves are sometimes involved in the extortion of their rivals; Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office recently reported that some sell personal information about employees of their competitors to gangs, making it easier for the criminals to threaten them.

The high level of gang penetration, corruption in the bus companies, and the weakness of Guatemala’s institutions make combating violence and extortion on public transport extremely challenging. The expansion of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Guatemala City, however, could prove to be an effective strategy for reducing extortion of bus companies and violence against drivers and passengers. First used in Curitiba, Brazil in 1974, BRT systems employ dedicated bus lanes to channel high-capacity buses along a series of fixed stations. BRT’s modern appearance and low cost have made it very appealing for governments in Latin America.

The first line of Guatemala’s BRT system, the Transmetro, opened in 2007. A second was added in 2009, and as of June of this year the Transmetro was serving an average of 268,000 passengers each day. Designed to appeal not only to the 68 percent of residents who typically use public transport but also to car owners looking to cut the cost and length of their commute, the Transmetro currently consists of two lines and 32 stations, with more planned for the future. It is run by the Guatemala City municipal government and receives support from the United Nations Development Program.

The kinds of extortion schemes run by gangs on traditional buses are impossible on Transmetro due to its digital payment system. Most traditional buses in Guatemala lack cash collection machines. Instead, an assistant, known as a “brocha,” or the bus driver himself collects the fare directly from passengers. On Transmetro, however, passengers either insert Q1 ($0.13) into electronic fareboxes at the entrance of the stations or use prepaid cards to pay their fare. This payment system cuts out the drivers from the process of fare collection and gets rid of the bus assistants, who are sometimes affiliated with gangs.

The centralized structure and government oversight of the Transmetro system make it much safer. Weapons are banned on board the buses, and the stations are equipped with closed circuit cameras and patrolled by municipal police. The fixed entry and exit points, coupled with the presence of the municipal police, make it difficult for assailants to escape after committing a crime. Some sources say that as of 2011 there had been no murders, armed robberies, or other violent incidents reported on the Transmetro, although this has not been confirmed by the authorities.

The Transmetro only serves a portion of Guatemala City’s bus drivers and passengers today, but it is a step in the right direction. Working for Transmetro, rather than for a private bus company, will not prevent drivers from being extorted at home in neighborhoods controlled by gangs, but it does allow them to go to work each day with less fear of violence.

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