In Guatemala, danger lies on a bus
The Guatemalan government is taking steps to reduce the killings of bus drivers in the country.
BY EZRA FIESER Special to The Miami Herald
GUATEMALA CITY -- In his 12 years driving a city bus, Hector Garrillo has felt the cold barrel of a gun against his temple so many times that he's stopped counting.
The most shocking attack occurred earlier this year, when a pair of teenagers carrying their baby boarded his bus as he steered through the slums on the city's outskirts. The boy -- he couldn't have been older than 15, Garrillo said -- pulled a sawed-off shotgun out of the diaper bag.
``He put it up to my head and told me to give him everything, my cellphone, my papers and all the money in the fare box,'' said Garrillo, 45. ``He left me with nothing. This used to be a good job. Now it's a nightmare.''
And Garrillo counts himself lucky.
Nearly 600 drivers like Garrillo have been murdered on the job since 2006. In the first six months of this year, 62 drivers and 31 drivers' assistants were slain, according to government statistics. Gang members extort drivers and bus owners, charging them a ``protection tax'' to pass through gang-controlled neighborhoods. If they don't pay, the gangs send hit men.
``I've had 12, maybe 15 friends get killed. Thank God nothing's happened to me,'' Garrillo said. He hands over as much as $125 a month to the gangs, about one-fourth of his earnings. ``It's scary. My family wants me to quit, but I have no other way to pay the bills.''
Just 14 years after the end of a civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people, Guatemala is now struggling with a new wave of deadly crime. Overcome with drug traffickers, gangs and corruption, Guatemala's murder rate is more than eight times that of the United States. On the streets of Guatemala City, the violent heart of one of the hemisphere's most deadly countries, the most vulnerable seat you can take is behind the wheel of a bus.
``Driving a bus is, and has been for a while, the most dangerous job in the country. And this is a country already struggling with crime,'' said Karla Campos, a legal advisor with Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, a human rights group that tracks killings in the country.
In July, the government introduced a new bus system, one it promises will cut down on the violence. But drivers and passengers have watched the killings continue.
It started 15 years ago with simple theft: kids with machetes threatened passengers and drivers into turning over pocket change. Now, the gangs are armed with pistols, shotguns and automatic weapons. Twice last year, gangs even attacked buses with fragmentation grenades. In past years, gangs in neighboring Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico have stepped up their violent attacks, including deadly attacks on buses.
In Guatemala, the murders are often presented as simple extortion: If a bus driver or company does not pay for ``protection,'' the gangs shoot him, much like they did with Garrillo's friend, David Giovany Mayén, a 29-year-old father who was shot to death at dawn on a February morning.
Read more: Miami Herald