Not for the Faint Hearted
As you may have cottoned onto after being privy to the experience of being on a chicken bus that has been stuffed to at least three times its maximum capacity, or witnessing an ayudante whack out his huge wodge of cash, chicken buses can bring in rather large sums of money, especially by Guatemalan standards. Couple this with a huge government transport subsidy program that is poorly supervised and a country that is rife with organised crime and you can quickly get to grips with why extorting money from Guatemala’s transport companies has become such a regular practice that transport company owners have come to see it just as a cost of doing business.
This doesn’t mean, however, that this state of affairs does not have dire consequences for many of Guatemala’s bus drivers. Being a chicken bus driver in Guatemala has been named one of the most dangerous jobs in the world – on a par with professions such as loggers, miners and deep sea fishermen but without a decent salary to match the risk.
Anyone who’s had the experience of a white-knuckle ride on a chicken bus could easily be led to believe that this high level of risk is down to crashes and accidents that buses incur on route. And we’d forgive you for thinking that: let’s face it, chicken bus drivers do drive like maniacal, wannabe rally car racers.
However, the number of fatalities of drivers in road accidents pales in comparison to the number of drivers that are murdered by members of the infamous maras. Between 2005 and 2011 over 500 drivers were killed by gang members, and that is not even taking account the countless number of deaths of their ayudantes or the innocent passengers who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
These figures have certainly not been getting any better in recent years, despite the President’s claim this year that his government has been successful in reducing crime and increasing a greater sense of security for all its citizens (a statement, people were quick to point out online, that is easy to make when you travel everywhere accompanied by a huge security caravan and armed bodyguards). In fact, in 2013 the number of murders of bus drivers doubled in comparison to rates from the previous year and last month the Minister of Governance was forced to admit that extortion in the country has risen by 21% over the past three years. In the first 40 days alone of 2015, there was a total number of 37 attacks carried out against camionetas, leaving 45 people dead. If these rates continue, it could mean that Guatemala is on course for a rate of more than one chicken bus murder per day in 2015.
The government’s central strategy for dealing with the problem has simply been to lock up gang members and leaders, and then pretty much forgetting about them. Most of the gangs are now operated from inside prison and attempts to bring them under control have failed miserably. A recent tactic was to block cell phone usage in the prisons so that gang leaders couldn’t communicate with their members running the extortion rings on the ground. But the inmates, devious criminals that they are, simply adapted: it emerged last month that they have now resorted to simply smuggling hand-written notes out of jail instead of using their phones.
Meanwhile, calls to properly regulate the distribution of transport subsidies, the primary reason why extorting bus companies is such a lucrative business, have been unsurprisingly absent. Government officials don’t want them better regulated because they’ve got countless fingers in countless places in the subsidy money-pie; transport company owners don’t want better supervision because it would make it harder for them to pocket the money; and many chicken bus drivers also don’t want them better regulated because, it has been revealed, a large number are actually involved in extorting their own companies for money.
As is always the case, this complex web of corruption and violence ends up affecting ordinary Guatemalan citizens the worst, for whom, The Guatemalan Institute of Applied Pyschology stated last month, riding aboard a chicken bus feels like “walking across a mine field.”