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EL SALVADOR: Drivers Risk Extortion, Murder by Gangs

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Apr 15 2011 (IPS) - Zigzagging along the streets of the Salvadoran capital in his bus, José Nuila is much more worried about avoiding an attack by youth gang members than about making his way through the complicated tangle of traffic.

In El Salvador, which has one of the world’s highest murder rates, violence has claimed the lives of hundreds of bus drivers over the last few years.

This Central American country’s 15,000 bus drivers are frequent targets of robberies and extortion by the two main youth gangs, MS 13 or Mara Salvatrucha, and M 18 or 18th Street gang, which in recent years have evolved into full-fledged organised crime groups.

In addition, allied criminal organisations contract gang members as hired killers, extortionists and small-time drug dealers.

Since 2006, when attacks on bus drivers surged, 625 have been murdered, according to statistics kept by the industry – including 29 in the first quarter of this year alone.

“I have gone to crime scenes of the murders of fellow drivers. Some of them have been killed for one dollar, because they had the bad luck that they had no money on them at that moment,” Nuila told IPS as he drove along the streets of San Salvador.

Extortion is the gangs’ most profitable money-making racket. According to estimates by the transport industry, bus drivers and owners of transit companies paid some 18 million dollars in “protection payments” in 2009.

El Salvador and neighbouring Honduras and Guatemala have had serious problems with street gangs since the 1980s. The gangs, fuelled by extreme poverty and social marginalisation, actually originated in California after nearly one million Salvadorans fled to the United States during this country’s 1980-1992 civil war and settled largely in poor neighbourhoods in Los Angeles where gang violence was rife.

After the armed conflict, U.S. authorities began to deport thousands of gang members to El Salvador, where the escalation of violence drove the murder rates above those seen during the war.

Around 70 percent of young people in El Salvador’s cities have no opportunity to study at the university and leave behind the cycle of poverty and marginalisation in which they have been raised, according to a “Map of Urban Poverty and Social Exclusion” published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in April 2010.

In El Salvador, an estimated 40,000 young people belong to gangs, which are known in the region as “maras.”

According to official statistics, the poverty rate in this country of 5.7 million people is 37 percent.

The UNDP’s Report on Human Development in Central America 2009-2010 says the region has the highest rates of non-political crime in the world, due to the high murder rates in El Salvador (52 homicides per 100,000 population), Honduras (58 per 100,000) and Guatemala (48 per 100,000).

Bus drivers are all too frequently among the victims of extortion and murder.

“They have come on my bus and forced me to drive, at gunpoint,” Nuila said. “They said that if I stopped, they would kill me. So you have to give them the money, sometimes all of it, and sometimes just part of it.”

Extortion rackets also commonly target small, medium and even large businesses, which are forced to make protection payments.

“The fact that mass transit vehicles carry money is a strong attraction for anyone interested in committing crimes,” Deputy Minister of Transport Nelson García told IPS.

He said plans are being devised to modernise the public transport system so passengers will use prepaid cards and no cash will be kept on board buses, with the aim of reducing extortion and theft.

Delivery truck drivers at risk too

Drivers of trucks delivering food and other basic products from town to town also live in fear of being robbed or killed by gang members.

Five drivers distributing bottled water and one driver delivering dairy products were killed in February – the former in Tonacatepeque, north of San Salvador, and the latter in a rural area of the central province of Libertad.

“Around two weeks ago they stopped us in Ilopango (east of San Salvador), trapped us in the vehicle, and ordered us to hand everything over,” Marcos, who preferred not to give his last name, told IPS.

Industry statistics indicate that losses due to robbery of delivery vehicles amounted to one million dollars in 2006, although they dropped 172,000 dollars last year.

There are neighbourhoods where, if the distributors do not pay off gang leaders in advance, drivers are not allowed in to deliver merchandise. Daily protection payments range from five to 10 dollars, and there are weekly or monthly payments as well.

The National Civil Police assistant chief of investigations Howard Cotto told IPS that the fight against extortion has been the most successful recent offensive by the police, as 90 percent of reported cases end in conviction.

Cotto said that not all murders of drivers are caused by refusal or failure to make protection payments. But drivers and transport company owners say extortion by gangs is the main motive behind the killings.

After 16 passengers were killed in June 2010 in street gang attacks on two city buses, one of which was sprayed with bullets while the other was doused with gasoline and set on fire, Congress passed a law in September making membership in gangs a crime.

The risks faced by bus and delivery truck drivers have pushed many to quit their jobs.

“A lot of young guys apply for jobs as bus drivers, but on their very first day on the job they are robbed or extorted, and they don’t come back the next day, because they see that they can be killed,” Nuila said.

Another driver, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that in 2006, thieves put a pistol to his head and robbed him and his assistant. After that, he started suffering from health problems that forced him to quit his job, he said.

“I got sick after the assault, and I had to stop working. My wife and my kids told me that we would manage to put food on the table somehow,” he said.

Besides facing the risk of being robbed, injured or killed, the right of drivers to hold a decent steady job is thus undermined as well.

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