GUATEMALA CITY – Daily attacks by youth gangs demanding protection money have forced bus companies to halt service between this capital and the nearby colonial city of Antigua, which draws more than 5,000 tourists a day.
The suspension sharply reduced the number of visitors in Antigua last week and left thousands of that city’s residents unable to reach their jobs in Guatemala City.
The transit companies suspended service following the May 28 murder of driver José Lorenzo Reyes, 49, who was slain by a suspected gang member after he filed a formal criminal complaint against the gangs for levying a “tax” of roughly $50 on every trip between Guatemala City and Antigua.
The director of the ATG bus driver union, Luis Gómez, said that on an average day, gangs rob 200 of the 3,000 buses operating in the capital.
So far this year, he said, 51 bus drivers and fare collectors have been killed by gang members for refusing to pay protection money.
On May 28, President Oscar Berger ordered 250 members of the Presidential Guard deployed on the streets of Guatemala City to protect public transportation, while Defense Minister Cecilio Leiva later told reporters that 500 more soldiers were being brought in from provincial garrisons to beef up security in the capital.
Police recently rounded up some 75 members of the two biggest gangs, Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, accused of extorting bus drivers and robbing passengers.
But most of those arrested were back on the street in less than a week, prosecutors said, because victims were too scared of reprisals to press charges.
The gangs, meanwhile, have threatened to burn the buses if drivers don’t resume service on the Guatemala City-Antigua route and stop speaking out about the extortion.