Crime, Corruption Killing Guatemalan Bus Drivers
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
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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