GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — The Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have some of the world’s highest rates of violent crime. Extortion by criminal gangs is a serious problem and has turned the lives of many impoverished workers into a nightmare. Many Central American workers have their already low wages extorted while many of their employers’ profits are also extorted. Those who refuse to pay are often killed.
Extortion has had the worst effect on public transit systems. Bus and taxi companies and their drivers are regularly extorted not only by major gangs such as 18th Street and the Maras but also by independent extortion rings. Extortionists often demand very high portions of the wages earned by drivers and many drivers and their companies face payment demands by multiple extortionists, sometimes more than five.
As a result, many refuse to pay. This makes bus drivers one of the top targets of extortion related murders and has made public transit systems in major cities dangerous to use, although many riders have no choice. Last year in Guatemala, 412 people were killed on public transportation, most on buses in the capital. The deaths included 102 bus drivers, 35 taxi drivers, 102 passengers and 33 helpers.
In less than 10 years, more than 900 bus drivers have been killed in Guatemala. Despite a heavy presence of armed patrols and many measures taken by the government in an effort to combat extortion, the killings continue and in the first two months of this year 42 people were killed.
Transit systems in El Salvador and Honduras are also suffering from extortion-related violence. In El Salvador, 625 bus drivers were murdered between 2006 and 2011. Gangs extort an estimated $36 million a year from bus companies, amounting to 10 to 25 percent of their profits. In 2012 the government instituted a program providing military escorts for buses but was forced to abandon it because of a lack of funds.
In Honduras, 240 people on public transportation were killed between 2010 and 2014. Most were bus and taxi drivers. There were two public transit strikes last year by workers angered by the government’s inaction, one in February and one in October. The October strike ended with the government agreeing to deploy military forces to help protect drivers, but the violence continues.
Transportation companies face a lot of turnover as many drivers quit a few days after starting once they’ve been robbed and threatened. But many drivers don’t have that luxury and have no other way to make a living and provide for their families. The pay is low, an average of $38 a day in Guatemala, but after paying off extortionists, many come home with less than $150 each month.
Many drivers are forced to quit or take time off because of PTSD and other health problems caused by extortion-related violence. Once they do, their families are forced to find other ways to provide for themselves. Not only is it a huge tragedy for a family when a driver is killed, it is also a financial disaster. Widowed families receive minor pension payments to help keep them afloat, but it is not enough to live on.
Transit workers aren’t the only ones suffering from extortion. Local businesses are also popular targets, including establishments in major cities. This has discouraged many from opening new businesses and forces many businesses to close. Extortionists aim to take as much money as they can without driving an establishment out of business, but many end up closing anyway, either because they can’t stay afloat or do not want to face the risk of violence. Extortion has forced thousands of businesses in the region to shut down.
For workers in many parts of Central America, making ends meet involves more than the usual long hours and hard work, it also involves risking one’s life and dealing with extortion gangs. The fact that it has become so difficult to find safe employment in many parts of the region has in turn fueled an increase of Central American migrant workers coming to the U.S. in search of safer and higher paying jobs.
– Matt Lesso