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GUATEMALA: Bus Drivers Targets of Organised Crime Killings

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Feb 8 2008 (IPS) - “Oh, I wish they would stop killing bus drivers, Jesus, I wish they would!” said a woman in tears as she took part in a Holy Week procession in the Guatemalan capital, Ernestina González, a domestic worker who rides the bus every day, told IPS.

In just three days, youth gangs known here as “maras” killed seven city bus drivers while trying to extort payments from them. Five were murdered on Tuesday and three on Thursday in the latest wave of violence that President Álvaro Colom blamed on organised crime.

The president said the groups were seeking to destabilise his government.

“We are asking for security and guarantees, to be able to work safely,” Victoriano Zacarías, the head of the bus drivers union, told IPS.

He added that he was surprised at the way the attacks were staged, “simultaneously, on busy routes, as if it were a plan designed to hurt the entire sector.”

Zacarías said that so far this year at least 12 bus drivers have been killed when they refused to fork over “protection payments”. Other frequent victims of extortion by the gangs are taxi drivers, the owners of small businesses, and ordinary labourers and employees, who are often forced to flee their homes because of death threats received after they are unable or unwilling to pay up.

Colom, a social democrat who took office on Jan. 14, told reporters Thursday that the attacks were “planned by organised crime to conspire against the government because of the measures it has taken to bolster security.”

Helen Mack, president of the Myrna Mack Foundation, a local human rights group, concurred with the government Friday, telling a radio station that the murders “were part of a plan.”

On Thursday, the drivers and conductors of 300 buses in the capital went on strike demanding better security in their jobs and that the perpetrators of the killings be brought to justice.

Because of the strike, it took González nearly three hours, instead of one, to get home after work.

Zacarías said his union is important because when drivers go on strike, the entire population and economy are affected.

He called for the creation of a prepaid payment mechanism so that bus drivers do not carry around a lot of cash, “which attracts criminals.” He also demanded that police officers accompany bus drivers, and complained that “the government has only met and negotiated with the bus company owners.”

Since 1992, the union has given the owners suggestions as to how to prevent the problem of extortion of “protection money,” but “they prefer the chaos because all they care about is raking in profits,” said Zacarías.

Mack said one of the factors fomenting the lack of safety for drivers and for the public at large is the lack of coordination between the public prosecutors’ office and the National Civil Police, and argued that the solution is not increasing the size of the police force but improving law enforcement efforts.

Bus drivers have repeatedly charged that corrupt police officers work in complicity with the gangs.

A driver who preferred not to be named told a local radio station Friday that “you leave for work and you don’t know if you’ll return home alive.” He added that he was sorry he had to open the door to criminals, knowing that they were going to rob him and his passengers, because he feared for his own life.

In Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, there is little confidence in the justice system and the security forces, which have been penetrated by organised crime. Ninety-eight percent of murders go unsolved.

Interior Minister Vinicio Gómez announced that since the new administration was sworn in, 269 police officers have been sacked. The purge, the fourth carried out in six months, brought the total number of officers dismissed to more than 2,500.

A source with an international agency that works in one of the city’s most violent areas, who is in daily contact with the police, told IPS that the solution is a total overhaul of the police force that would not only affect the rank and file, but middle and high-level police officials as well.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Statistical Report on Violence in Guatemala, which was based on official data from the National Civil Police and was released in December, 5,885 murders were committed in this country of 13 million in 2006.

That gives Guatemala one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the western hemisphere.

Colom said in a radio interview Friday that his government has confiscated more AK-47 assault rifles than were seized in all of 2007 – an average of 1.5 a day.

And while he acknowledged that “the situation is very complex,” he promised that within four months, Guatemalans would begin to feel safer.

Observers say the high levels of violence and the continued existence of paramilitary groups or vigilantes are linked to Guatemala’s bloody past. In the 1960-1996 civil war, the security forces and allied paramilitary groups were responsible for the majority of the killings of some 200,000 mainly rural indigenous people.

“President Colom should live up to his promise and carry out in-depth reforms of the security system,” the non-governmental organisation Security in Democracy said in a statement Friday.

An International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) began to work in January to fight the violence and the mafias that have infiltrated the justice system.

CICIG, which is financed almost entirely by international donations, is the result of an agreement signed in 2006 by then President Óscar Berger and the United Nations.

The Commission is currently made up of around 40 prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials from Guatemala, the United States and Europe who are familiar with human rights, criminal and international law, and organised crime. But that number is set to grow to 160 by the middle of the year.

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