Guatemala Gangs To Bus
Drivers: Pay Fee, Or Risk Death
By Ezra Fieser, Tierra Nueva, Guatemala
The week before he was killed, Rogelio
Chivalan paid gangs a protection fee of $240
to drive his bus safely through
neighborhoods they controlled.
Bystanders watched as police in Guatemala
the scene of a robbery attempt on a bus
April 8 in which
one passenger was killed and two assailants
were shot by police.
Bus drivers must pay Guatemala's gangs a
high protection fee,
and even then they risk death in some
Foto: Daniel LeClair/Reuters
They killed him anyway, with four shots to
the head while he drove his bus during
morning rush hour in August 2007.
"They'll kill you if you pay. They'll kill
you if you don't pay. It's nothing for [the
gangs]," says his widow, Ingrid Janeht
Escobar. "For us, everything changed that
At the time, Mr. Chivalan's death was a
front-page story in Guatemalan tabloids
copies of which Ms. Escobar carries in a
discolored cloth bag slung over her
shoulder. Since then, the killing of bus
drivers has become a footnote in this
country's violent downward spiral, in which
Escobar has seen neighbors become widows.
Around the country, 512 bus drivers have
been killed since 2006 in a scourge on the
country's only public transportation system.
Last year alone, 146 drivers and 60 drivers'
assistants were murdered.
Gangs extort both the drivers and the
private companies that own the buses for
"protection" fees. When drivers or companies
don't pay or, as was the case with
Chivalan, sometimes even when they do pay
gangs kill the driver and rob the bus.
"It's a net of extortion carried out against
[the] public transportation" system by
gangs, says Carlos Castresana, a Spanish
investigator who heads the United
Nations-sponsored Commission Against
Impunity in Guatemala, which investigates
organized crime. (See story on the
commission.) "They have no respect for life.
They are very deadly.... Here the [gangs]
have the power that terrorist groups have in
Communities beset by poverty and a lack of
opportunities feed both the job rolls of bus
companies and the gangs' memberships. Some
young men seek jobs as bus drivers because
few other jobs are available. Others choose
gang life, which provides a sort of family
for disenchanted youths.
Gangs, or maras, as they are known in the
region, began to spread in Central America
in the 1980s when men living in Los Angeles
where they had learned gang culture were
deported to El Salvador.
The gangs spread from there, carrying
monikers like Mara 18 (a reference to a
street in San Salvador) or Mara Salvatrucha
13, a supposed homage to the founding
members of the gang, who were supposed to be
as wise as an old trout a "trucha."
A 2007 United Nations study estimated that
there were 69,000 gang members in Central
America, roughly 14,000 of whom lived in
In a region also marked by drug trafficking,
experts say gangs are responsible for only a
portion of the region's high murder rate
about 800 percent higher than that of the
Yet their rise has mirrored the region's
climb to what the United Nations called "the
world's most violent region" in a 2009
"In terms of violence, it's worse now than
during the civil war," which killed 200,000
from 1960 to 1996, says Juan Carlos Morales,
who drives one of the 4,000 buses a
rusting, diesel-cloud belching, former US
Morales, who has driven for 20 years, says a
dozen drivers he knew were killed in the
past three years. He pays about $90 a week
for protection, but gets robbed so
frequently that he considers it part of the
job. Each month, he takes $150 home to a
family of seven.
"It's not enough to live," he says, "but I
can't find another job."