Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

TRANSPORT-EL SALVADOR: Your Money or Your Life

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Feb 15 2007 (IPS) - Bus drivers and conductors are being targeted by extortionists and murderers in El Salvador. Lack of security, which also afflicts other trades, has become a profitable business opportunity for criminals and police alike.

At first, the authorities assumed that gangs were responsible for the crimes, but some members of the business community reported that police were taking advantage of the climate of impunity and muscling in on the business, which has already cost the lives of dozens of transport workers for not paying protection money.

One of the latest episodes in this spiral of violence took place in late January, when a bus was hijacked by three armed men in the eastern suburbs of San Salvador. After ordering the passengers off the bus, the driver and conductor were forced to take it up a rural track.

Minutes later they were both shot in cold blood, and the gunmen proceeded to set fire to the vehicle. The bodies of the two transport workers were burnt to cinders.

The son of one of the bus workers who had just got off the vehicle ran back to the bus when he heard the shots and tried in vain to save his father’s life. He was badly burned in the attempt.

In 2006, this kind of violence killed at least 70 drivers and conductors in the transport trade. In January 2007 another six people were killed and 25 buses were torched. This is the result of many people having refused to pay protection money or “taxes” to gangs running extortion rackets.

The public transport system has a nationwide fleet of about 12,000 buses. The state grants concessions to bus owners, who may own from one to dozens of buses, to provide transport on a given route. There are very few real bus companies or cooperatives.

Rodrigo Contreras Teos, president of the Salvadoran Chamber of the Transport Industry, said that violence has overwhelmed the response capacity of the state, leaving society and the transport sector at the mercy of the extortionists.

“We are trapped by a monster whose tentacles grow daily, and that has the ability to control territories, arm itself to the teeth and buy the compliance of the authorities. This is very similar to the situation in the United States in the 1930s,” Contreras Teos told IPS, referring to the era when organised crime, with Al Capone as its best known boss, ruled the U.S..

“The authorities have not given this problem the serious attention it deserves,” he added.

According to Fabio Molina, head of statistics at the state Institute of Legal (Forensic) Medicine, 3,928 murders were recorded in 2006, three percent more than in 2005, equivalent to 55.5 per 100,000 population – making the level of violence in El Salvador one of the highest in the world.

The National Civil Police (PCN) alleged at one point that youth gangs were behind the extortion rackets, but in recent months business owners and the PCN itself have admitted that bands of criminals, opportunists and even police were in on the lucrative business, which also drains small businesses, street vendors, teachers and big companies.

Early this year, minister of Public Security and Justice René Figueroa stated that the number of extortions had fallen since September, and the PNC had arrested many of those involved. In his mid-term speech, President Antonio Saca promised to make public security a top priority.

A few days later, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of El Salvador reported that its branches in the eastern province of San Miguel, and in Santa Ana in the west, were experiencing increasing levels of extortion, especially against street vendors and small businesses, including transport workers.

A PNC source confirmed to IPS that 2006 saw a significant increase in extortion compared to previous years. In 2005 there were barely 493 official complaints, whereas in 2006 these shot up to 2,485. In 2003, there were only 290 complaints filed. The spokesperson declined, however, to give details about members of the police force who have been accused of extortion and other crimes.

At the end of 2006, the head of the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP), Jeannette Aguilar, told IPS that El Salvador was suffering from an authority vacuum in which criminals, organised or otherwise, take possession of territories and impose their rules, to the astonishment of a defenceless population.

“We have a state that is non-existent. The state has not solved the security problem, nor the economic situation,” she said.

Although Contreras Teos acknowledges the complexity of the problem, he urged the authorities to combat crime and to implement preventive action to overcome “the impunity everywhere.”

Contreras Teos is convinced that “there are police who participate directly (in extortion), or are accomplices. The situation invites rampant corruption, and absorbs resources from the entire transport sector. Many victims do not even dare file a complaint.”

Sometimes, “the criminals are informed that they have been denounced before the victims have finished lodging their report of an incident,” he said.

“How can one pluck up the courage to make a complaint when even on the other end of the PNC’s 911 emergency response system there are police who are involved in criminal activities?” Contreras Teos asked.

Given that situation, many victims simply agree to pay up.

Contreras Teos knows what he’s talking about. “I myself am currently affected by extortion. I have to pay out 200 dollars a month per vehicle,” he confessed.

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