Guatemala police have arrested seven people for extorting an estimated $500,000 from bus drivers in the capital city, highlighting an alarming trend in the Central American country.
On June 12, seven Guatemalans were arrested for allegedly extorting close to $500,000 from Guatemala City bus companies in the past four years. According to an Interior Ministry spokesperson, the gang members demanded monthly payments of around $6,250 from bus drivers and operators in the western and southwestern parts of the city. Government officials estimate that more than 250 bus company employees were killed for refusing to pay the gang members, although it is not yet clear whether those arrested were directly responsible for the deaths.
According to Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla, three local Barrio 18 cells — known as Cypress Locotes Gangster, Hollywood Gangster, and Imperial Gangster — collaborated in the extortion scheme. Those involved in the operation received directions from gang members already in prison, says the Interior Ministry spokesperson.
One of the gang members arrested, Marta de Leon Lopez, claims that she was coerced by the gang into working for them, and would have refused if the gang hadn’t threatened her and her family.
InSight Crime Analysis
Barrio 18, also known as the 18th Street Gang and M-18, originated in Los Angeles and operates from Central America through Canada. Its cells are involved in numerous criminal enterprises, including drug trafficking, murder-for-hire, prostitution, extortion, and kidnapping.
Extortion is particularly lucrative for Central American gangs like Barrio 18. A recent Human Rights Watch report holds Barrio 18 and its rival Mara Salvatrucha responsible for the widespread killing of Guatemalan bus drivers who refuse to pay extortion fees. In 2010, 183 bus drivers were murdered in the country.
This is not the most recent extortion scheme involving bus drivers. In April 2012, four people were captured for extorting drivers in the western part of Guatemala. The country’s public transportation industry has reported numerous problems with extortion rackets partly because drivers are highly vulnerable and visible targets, as they frequently carry large sums of cash. In order to address some of these security concerns and to modernize public transportation, the Guatemalan government established a Superintendent of Transportation in February 2012.
While this latest incident points to the dangers faced by Guatemalan transportation workers, it also highlights the importance of the prison system for running such extortion schemes, as the masterminds of the operation reportedly directed their subordinates from the confines of their jail cells.