Saturday, September 24, 2011

Crime, Corruption Killing Guatemalan Bus Drivers

Be sure to read the comments from people who live in Guatemala, as I do. I too am tired of the sensationalism of the media. Yes, Guatemala does have it’s problems. But Guatemala doesn’t have the same problems all over it’s country, just as the United States doesn’t have the same big city problems all over the U.S. You can’t compare Guatemala City, New York or Chicago to a whole country.Gangs are always a problem in any country and there are many groups here helping Guatemala in their striving for equality and justice.

We live in the highlands in Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala and it’s wonderful place. Peaceful and harmonious and everyone gets along. Here the men take turns patrolling the streets at night along with the police, and we have no crime. They are not “vigilantes.” They are law abiding members of the community, family men, members of the churches and the city council. This is what is meant by “working together” and “community,” things that are sorely lacking in our culture.

We idolize our criminals in our U.S. history, from criminal CEO’s, Presidents or those robbers and killers from “The Wild West”. Look at Billy the Kid whose legend says he killed 22 people before he was 21 years old. And Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid… What else were they but “gang members?” Read on…

Although no one uses gas cans or "lights matches" here in Panajachel, I like the idea of gangs hearing about this "technique." This my favorite quote out of the whole story below:

Meanwhile, Guatemala's wave of vigilantism community patrols are having its desired effect.

"We don't mess with the people in the provinces," says a 26-year-old former member of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang. "In San Juan, Xela, San Lucas, they're united. If they catch you, they'll pour on gasoline, light a match, and that's it."

Crime, Corruption Killing Guatemalan Bus Drivers

From NPR by Jason Beaubien
June 4, 2009

In Guatemala, bus drivers are being gunned down at an alarming rate. The hazardous situation on Guatemala's buses is a result of a confluence of corruption, crime and poverty. The Guatemalan government pays millions of dollars a year in subsidies to bus owners, yet the battered vehicles on the streets are mostly old school buses from the United States.

Copyright © 2009 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


Another story we're following today involves a conflict in Guatemala. In that country, driving a bus can be lethal. Corruption, crime and poverty have led to deadly competition among rival bus owners and have also fueled an extortion racket. Armed gangs demand bribes from the drivers. Drivers who don't pay up often pay with their lives. More than 70 drivers have been killed already this year in Guatemala and the problem is especially bad in the capital, Guatemala City. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

JASON BEAUBIEN: In Zona Quatro on the northwest edge of Guatemala City, Percida Iguara(ph) is waiting for the Number 70 bus, one day after a driver on the line was assassinated behind the wheel. Iguara is terrified of the public buses, but she doesn't have a car and she says this is the only way to get around.

Ms. PERCIDA IGUARA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: We have to ride the buses, but it makes you nervous, she says. You don't know if you're going to return or if you're not going to return. The only thing you can do is put yourself in the hands of God.

The day before, three men in a Toyota Corolla pulled up alongside the Number 70 bus and shot the driver repeatedly in the head. On the same day, another driver on the Number 70 line was assaulted and a 25-year-old driver on a different line was also killed.

Iguara says the situation on Guatemala's buses is out of control.

Ms. IGUARA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: If they shoot the driver, just imagine, you don't know what's going to happen, she says. And if you get robbed, that's another story. If you don't have anything to give them, that's bad. She says the robbers might even get nervous and shoot you.

Police say that so far this year more than 70 bus drivers have been murdered behind the wheel in Guatemala, this in a country of less than 14 million people.

Guatemala is a graveyard for old American school buses; aging Blue Birds painted blood red rattle over Guatemala's roads. The long, boxy vehicles cough out clouds of thick, black diesel exhaust. Despite being the primary form of public transportation, Guatemala's bus system is a chaotic, fiercely competitive enterprise.

Drivers rent the vehicles by the day and they get to keep whatever proceeds are left after paying for fuel, protection and a meager salary for a fare collector. The faster you go, the more money you make. And why stick to your route if you can veer off and poach your rival's passengers? Or you could literally just kill your competition.

Mr. ADAIR GUARA(ph) (Union Leader): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: This is a really ugly mafia, says Adair Guara, the head of a local bus riders union. It's said that some of the bus owners are so viscous that they'll kill their rivals or anyone who discovers their illicit businesses. The owners of the buses get millions of dollars each year from the government to provide public transportation. But Guara says there's no oversight to make sure the subsidized buses are safe or charging the standard rate or even operating on their assigned route.

In addition, local gangs extort protection money or la renta from drivers who pass through their territory. Twenty-four-year-old Luis Enrique Shava(ph), who has been working as a bus assistant for six years, says drivers are scrounging just to make enough to eat. But he says drivers can't get away without paying la renta to the local street gangs.

Mr. ENRIQUE SHAVA (Bus Assistant): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: If they don't pay the protection money, he says, they can't work. And it's those drivers who suffer, because if they don't pay the gangs will them.

The municipal government in Guatemala says it is trying to change the system. The city's replacing some of the old school buses with clean, new articulated ones. The new vehicles have dedicated lanes on fixed routes, but most importantly, passengers pay at a kiosk before they get on. The drivers carry no cash, and thus they don't have to worry about getting robbed, extorted or shot.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Guatemala City.

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Fed Up, Ordinary Guatemalans Turn To Vigilantism

John Burnett/NPR

All Things Considered

Night patrollers in San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala, say their rounds have chased away the gang members.

Photo Gallery: Violence Against Bus Drivers
Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

The killing of bus drivers is common in Guatemala as local gangs extort fees from drivers. Here, driver Werner Ramirez heads to the funeral of fellow bus driver and company owner Jesus Ubaldo Munoz. Munoz was gunned down in front of his house on the outskirts of Guatemala City.

A bus rests on a street after the murder of its driver and his assistant.
Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

A bus rests on a street after the murder of its driver and his assistant.
It is so common for buses to be attacked that owners often don't bother to repair them.
Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

It is so common for buses to be attacked that owners often don't bother to repair them.
More In The Series

Part 1 reports on gangs in Guatemala and the sicarios — or hitmen — hired to kill their members.

Former Gang Members Talk

"El Flaco" describes his life as a gang member. The 26-year-old claims to have murdered 22 people. Read excerpts from the interview.

"El Cholo" is 20 years old. He has been a member of different gangs — or maras — and says he's killed 10 people. Read excerpts from the interview.

Warning: These interviews are graphic and some may find parts of them disturbing.

Assassins On Their Roles

Christian and Roberto are sicarios, or assassins. Christian left the National Civil Police in April 2008; Roberto left the police in 2000. As sicarios, they estimate they've killed two dozen people between them. Read excerpts from the interview with them.
December 23, 2008

In Guatemala, anger over rampant crime and distrust of the police has led to widespread vigilantism. Though the practice is alarming to human-rights monitors, the public is applauding the efforts, saying they are finally cleaning up their towns.

Last year, the working-class Mayan town of San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala, was overrun with street gangs. Extortionists reportedly went through the phone book — name by name — demanding money and threatening violence against families that didn't pay. Residents complained of an impotent police force and a justice system that releases criminals back into the population.

Taking Back The Streets

Fourteen months ago, the people of San Juan Sacatepequez took matters into their own hands. Every night, men gather in the plaza to go on patrol with machetes, truncheons and two-way radios. On a recent night, a group of 20 men — bundled against the mountain cold, some in balaclavas — walked the darkened, hilly streets of their sector.

The patrol leader, a local veterinarian nicknamed "The Jackal," says the gangbangers have mostly left San Juan Sacatepequez, and their security patrols have been so effective that other cities now want to copy them.

"Right now, nothing happens anymore because they know we're patrolling at night," says The Jackal. "If the delinquents try to rob anyone during the day, everyone in the marketplace has whistles to sound the alarm. And everyone comes out and captures the thief."

And what happens then?

The patrol leaders say they hand the thief over to the police. But San Juan Sacatepequez's police chief, whose officers have effectively been marginalized by the citizen patrols, says there have been six vigilante killings in the 10 months he has been on the job — and an attempted lynching last month. Townspeople caught two Nicaraguans they said were thieves. They tied the men up, stripped them, beat them bloody, and paraded them around town.

"They were at the point of pouring gasoline on them and setting them on fire. But it was avoided when the police intervened," says Arbol Pavilla, local representative of the Office of the National Human Rights Ombudsman. "They were lucky. I saw the gas can with my own eyes."

Residents Welcome 'More Tranquility'

At midnight, a cafe owner invites the patrol in off the streets to warm themselves with coffee and tamales. The owner, Osmar Mancilla, sits by the griddle and considers how things have turned around in San Juan Sacatepequez.

"I have a brother-in-law who had a bad experience with extortion. It was a type of terrorism; they had him afraid all the time," Mancilla says.

"There was so much insecurity in the streets. When you'd leave your house, you never knew if you'd ever return. Since they started these patrols, thank God, things have changed. There's more tranquility," he says.

Did the street gangs flee San Juan Sacatepequez because of the night patrols' presence, or because of the message sent by the vigilante killings — in which gang members were publicly incinerated?

"It's sad, because I think there's divine justice, and the only one who can take a life is God. But there are extreme circumstances. If the police protected the population, there wouldn't be the need for these measures," Mancilla says.

Government Encouraged 'Social Cleansing'

Back out on the street, a burly patroller in a ski mask, nicknamed "El Chino," says, "These people are human garbage. We don't want them around."

A few years ago, the Guatemalan government — frustrated at its police force's inability to control the gangs — encouraged limpieza social, or social cleansing. It was an overt message for communities to organize and dispose of gang members, whose numbers are today estimated at 80,000. What happened, wrote a newspaper columnist recently, was the creation of a societal "Frankenstein."

"The state cannot be plunged into a situation where there is no rule of law. We have a saying: The medicine can be worse than the illness," says Interior Minister Francisco Jimenez. "Social cleansing doesn't solve problems, because the result is impunity."

Jimenez says Guatemala is opening new academies to beef up its police force, which is currently less than half the size needed for a country of 13 million. Human-rights monitors accuse the police of condoning social cleansing, if not actually participating in it.

Meanwhile, Guatemala's wave of vigilantism is having its desired effect.

"We don't mess with the people in the provinces," says a 26-year-old former member of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang. "In San Juan, Xela, San Lucas, they're united. If they catch you, they'll pour on gasoline, light a match, and that's it."


Scott Snelling wrote:

I was disappointed in the tone of sensationalism in this story. I have ridden Guatemala's chicken busses in many parts of the country and always found them to be surprisingly convenient, efficient, and cheap. I spent three months this past winter in Guatemala, much of the time was spent touring on my bicycle. No matter how small of a road I decided to ride down, it was never long before a chicken bus lumbered past me with a load of passengers enveloped in Marimba music.

You spoke of the busses "belching smoke", implying they are bad for the environment. But Guatemala takes our trash busses and patches together a functioning public transportation system; what could greener?

Sat Jun 6 09:28:03 2009

Abram Huyser Honig (CatrachoAlbino) wrote:

I've lived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras for five years, all in poorer neighborhoods. All the problems described in the article happen here too. However, Association for a More Just Society, the organization I work with here, has found a much more peaceful, hopeful, successful solution to these problems than anything these articles point to. Four years after we started working in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city, UNDP stats show that murder, rape, and robbery are all down by over 60% (opposite the overall trend in Honduras). It's now one of the only neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa where bus drivers don't pay any "war taxes"--and there's no vigilantism either. Basically, we helped the justice system work like it's supposed to. We hired our own investigators and lawyers to work directly with victims, connect them with trustworthy, committed law-enforcement officials (they really do exist), and do some of the groundwork for police and prosecutors who have upwards of 200 cases assigned to them at once. The result: both gang members and vigilante groups that plagued neighborhood have been convicted and incarcerated, the neighborhood's peaceful, people believe in the justice system.
More at

Thu Jun 4 14:04:58 2009

Tomas K (TK57) wrote:

Thanks for doing the story about our buses, but you received a lot of bad information. The country is not updating buses and giving them dedicated lanes. That's one bus route called Transmetro and it's been around for two years.
What the government is trying to do is set up a pre-paid card system that would be installed on all routes.
Secondly, the payment system for drivers varies by company, but generally in the city the bus drivers are on a salary that's negotiated between the drivers union and the companies.
The extortion by gangs is of the companies that own the buses. The drivers are the victims in case the companies don't pay.
By the way, zona 4 is not on the northwest edge of the city.

Thu Jun 4 12:21:28 2009

Amy Mikus (blondamy5)

Amy Mikus (blondamy5) wrote:

No one will deny that Guatemala faces its own set of problems, but I am frustrated with its continued portrayal as nothing more than a dangerous, lawless country full of murders, drug traffickers and violence. What about a story on some of the indigenous communities in the highlands? Or the many NGOs who are working to build roads, bridges, schools, water systems, trade cooperatives, etc.? Limiting the characterization of Guatemala to the problems in Guatemala City is like describing the U.S. only by looking at L.A., Chicago or N.Y.C.; you get some truth but there's so much more to the story. Mr. Beaubien, I am an admirer of NPR and especially its foreign coverage. I will be in Guatemala next week, and if you would like to join me I'd be happy to introduce you to some of the many amazing people and organizations who are working to create hope and opportunity in Guatemala.

Thu Jun 4 09:11:16 2009

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Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
View of Lake Atitlan and volcano from my apartment balcony in Panajachel. Taken by Catherine Todd June 2008.