The Extortion Racket

‘Es un cáncer, un cáncer yo te digo. Es la peor cosa que pudo pasar a este país.’

‘It’s a cancer, a cancer I tell you. It’s the worst thing that could have happened to this country.’

I listened to my taxi driver speaking as we made our way through the traffic, closing and reopening the windows depending on where the thick black clouds of pollution were hanging.

We passed lots of other taxis; red, white, blue, green and yellow. Lots of chicken buses, painted in their offensively colorful way. And then there were the red buses, blood red and not much else. Maybe a few black trims, some shiny chrome decorations, and a decal or two of either Jesus Christ or Tweety and Sylvester. For the most part however, they were red.

Early morning traffic heading into Guatemala City

Early morning traffic heading into Guatemala City

The ‘cancer’ my taxi driver was referring to was the rampant and relentless extortion racket which plaques Guatemala, but nowhere more ferociously than in the capital itself. And in a city where it’s a case of your-money-or-your-life, it’s the red buses that get it worst.

They are the inner city buses that drive the length and breadth of the capital, choking and gasping for breath like the chain smoking crack addict clutching a can of Carlsberg Special Brew outside your local supermarket on a Friday night.

We've all seen this guy

We’ve all seen this guy

They belch out noxious fumes and dense black clouds of smog which form little black holes above the road. Picture that black cloud from the TV show Lost. What even was that thing?

The unfortunate truth about these buses is that they are incredibly dangerous and under the control of the Mareros, Central American Street gangs who know a thing or two about causing some trouble.

Red bus in Guatemala City

Red buses in Guatemala City

My taxi driver assured me that being a bus driver was, ‘el trabajo el mas peligroso del mundo,’ and I didn’t have much reason to doubt him.

Since 2006 more than 900 bus drivers have been killed at the hands of the two most violent street gangs in Central America, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18. Today bus drivers continue to be targeted with alarming frequency.

Inside a red bus

Inside a red bus

As I rode in the back of his taxi the driver reminded me that this culture of extortion extended to anyone who was even a little bit productive. The smallest ‘tienda’ on the street selling not much more than crisps and fizzy drinks has to pay the protection money. This makes for some quite depressing shop fronts, with a cage separating the vendor from the customer.

A caged shop front in the town of Sumpango, an hours drive west of the city

A caged shop front in the town of Sumpango, an hours drive west of the city

Even his white cab had had to change. No longer were taxi companies names printed on the side of the car; it made it too easy for the extortion racket. Instead the many different taxi companies are represented by a series of numbers so as to make them indistinguishable from one another.

Occasionally red buses drive by with a smiley face graffited on the back window, apparently a gangland sign to show the bus has paid its extortion fee. Ill try to see if there is any truth to this rumour (picture to come).

We arrived on one of the main streets that heads west out of the city, Calle Roosevelt. I thanked and paid him the heavily negotiated fare and jumped onto the next bus.


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