GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemalans, most of whom do not own a car and depend almost exclusively on public transportation, are putting life and limb on the line every time they step on a bus in this capital, which sees an average of 20 armed assaults on passengers or drivers every day and a murder on board every week, according to local media.
At least 3,200 armed robberies and 24 murders have been registered on Guatemala City public buses so far this year, the Prensa Libre newspaper reported, citing transportation association figures.
The article said 14 of the murder victims were drivers and the other 10 were passengers who resisted robbery attempts.
Although the number of injuries has not been reported, the daily said emergency services estimates showed that “more than 300 people have been treated after assaults on buses. Either for bullet or knife wounds, or for nerves.”
Most of the robberies have been blamed on members of youth gangs, known as “maras,” which have found the bus assaults to be easy money.
Guatemalan police arrested 62 suspected bus robbers during the first five months of this year, but 48 have been released for lack of evidence, judicial officials said.
The transportation authority said an average of 20 assaults a day take place, with passengers being robbed of money, jewelry and cellular phones in most cases. Precise figures do not exist, but police said multiple rapes of women have also occurred during the robberies.
In addition to robbing passengers, gang members run extortion rackets against drivers, demanding payment of a “driving tax” of $14 per day in exchange for not killing them.
Henry López, Guatemala City police central district chief, told Prensa Libre that some 7,000 officers were assigned to protect bus passengers and drivers.
The assailants, however, find ways around the police patrols and continue to commit crimes.
Guatemala City’s high crime rate makes it one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America.
In April, President Oscar Berger ordered the army to station 11,000 soldiers on street patrol as backup for police efforts to bring security to a nation scourged by runaway violence.
Faced with the National Police’s inability to stop the armed robbery, murder, rape and extortion attributed to youth gangs, residents of a number of towns have organized to fight the criminals themselves.
Berger acknowledged that youth gangs and organized crime have overwhelmed security forces’ response capability and declared these groups “a threat to national security.”
According to official statistics, levels of violence have increased over the past three years, with an average of 16 people slain every day in Guatemala.
Human Rights Prosecutor Sergio Morales said recently that the violence plaguing Guatemala “has become an epidemic.”
He said Guatemala registers an average of 40 murders per 100,000 inhabitants each year, a rate four times the one reported by the World Health Organization as the worldwide average – 10 per 100,000 people.
Guatemala is on pace so far this year to break the unenviable mark for murders it set in 2005.
In 2005, there were 5,338 violent deaths registered in the country and it is feared, if the current trend continues, that this year could be even worse.