On a busy Monday in Guatemala City, a commuter bus exploded into flames as it chugged down a highway from the center of the sprawling capital city.
A home-made firebomb allegedly was placed on the bus that day in early January by members of the Mara 18 street gang to pressure bus drivers to pay gang extortion fees. Nine people eventually died and many more were wounded by the impact of the blast.
Public transportation and bus drivers have become frequent targets in the rampant violence of Guatemala City, where organized crime rings, street gangs and drug cartels operate on a large scale but prosecution rates remain low.
In 2010, 130 bus drivers and 53 bus helpers who collect tolls were murdered, according to statistics released by the Guatemalan daily paper El Periódico. Drivers paid more than $1.5 million dollars in extortion money to organized crime in the same time period, according to police figures released earlier this year.
"There is a general impunity problem in Guatemala," Claudia Paz, Guatemala's attorney general, said through an interpreter. "We have a system of justice that has historically been weakened, that can't cope with violence and has permitted the number of deaths and homicides to rise."
On a national scale, the country has a homicide rate of more than 48 per 100,000 inhabitants. It's one of the highest homicide rates in the hemisphere— in the United States in 2009, the rate was 5 in 100,000, and in Mexico it was 14 per 100,000 people.
Many of those crimes occurs in Guatemala City, and the case of bus drivers reveals much about how gangs use public, violent crimes as a means to intimidate others --and cash in.
There is no single authorized public transportation system for buses in the city, so bus drivers often rent from a bus owner or buy their own vehicle and receive subsidies from the government to help provide transportation. This cash, and the money received from passengers, makes them targets.
Rubén Aquino is a former driver in Guatemala City who used to work for a company that began receiving threats from a gang through one of the company's bus helpers. The company began paying the gang $150 a month, but the harassment didn't stop for the drivers.
"I was attacked. They shot against the bus I used to drive. One day, they threatened me. If I didn’t pay them [$13] a day, they would kill me," Aquino said. "I was afraid and stopped circulating. There was too much to pay and it made no sense to work that way."
The Urban Bus Service Companies Association, which deals with industry concerns, has tried hiring private security for buses but found they could not afford to guard all the routes. There has also been a push to switch to new buses that have a prepaid system that allows payment without the exchange of cash. But for now, many of the old buses still roam the roads.
Donald González, spokesman for the National Civil Police, said Guatemalan gangs are a major part of the problem but that drivers, driver helpers, even owners have also been involved in some of the extortion schemes. He said it is difficult for the police to act without formal complaints from drivers or companies, but that filing a formal complaint requires an act of bravery.
"Due to the fact that there are not many formal complaints, impunity persists," Gonzalez said. "That is why it is necessary for people to speak up."
The level of violence has increased so much that a group was formed to help advocate for the widows of bus drivers. The group now has more than 300 members.
Lilian Pérez, speaking on behalf of the Urban and Suburban Transportation’s Bus Driver's Widows Association, said not enough support is given to family members after a driver is killed.
"A woman, Hilda, 36 -- her husband was a bus driver for a suburban transportation service and was killed," Pérez said. "She was left alone with five children. One of the kids has a heart problem. She didn’t have money to take him to the doctor."
Despite some efforts to increase security for drivers, many remain unconvinced that anything can keep them safe except paying the gangs or groups threatening them. Another bus driver who declined to give his name for security reasons said he began paying a gang $12 a day to keep operating.
"One of [the gang members] threatened me in person, when they charged me the first day," he said. The extortionist swore at him and said, "OK, that’s good that you stay aligned. If you derail, you'll be gone."