Owning a car is not an option for most Guatemalans — half of the country’s population survives on less than $2 a day. Instead, many people who live and work in Guatemala City rely on buses to transport them around. But when gangs control the capital, a simple bus ride can be more dangerous than it sounds.
So far in 2014, 206 people have been killed as a result of violence on buses in the Central American nation: 88 drivers, 26 assistants and 92 passengers, according to figures from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office.
Gang members charge bus drivers a so-called ‘safety tax’ to drive through certain zones, and if the drivers are unable or refuse to pay the extortion rates, they are killed at the wheel. The situation has become so severe that being a bus driver is now considered one of the country’s most dangerous professions.
In mid-October, drivers from one of the city’s central zones burned tires and blocked roads in a protest over increased extortion rates. According to one driver, “We already pay extortion to one group. But now another group has come along and is asking us for more money.”
Apparently the new extortionists charge as much as Q8,000 ($1,048) a month.
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Byron Ramírez López narrowly avoided being killed last week when the bus he was driving came under attack. He told a local newspaper that he saw in the rearview mirror a motorbike getting closer to his bus. Then he saw one of its riders draw a gun and begin shooting.
“I heard the shot and I threw myself to one side and they continued shooting,” he said.
Ramírez was one of the lucky ones. He managed to dodge the bullet, which got stuck in his seat, and escaped with just an injured arm.
A number of Ramírez’s colleagues have been killed by extortionists in similar incidents while others have fled the profession. Ramírez says he now plans to do the same.
In a bid to increase safety levels throughout the capital, the government has introduced a new transport system called Transurbano. Passengers board with prepaid travel tickets so drivers do not have to carry cash. The buses even come equipped with panic buttons, CCTV cameras and armed guards — and the project has become so successful that the number of routes throughout the city has recently been increased.
However, private bus drivers say they too need more protection and are calling for the police to do more to help them before they join the ever-increasing statistics of murdered transport workers.