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In the Newsroom

March 30, 2009
Street gangs target and kill bus drivers in Guatemala

Approximately 33 bus drivers have been murdered in Guatemala so far this year. Photo: Samuel Loewenberg

Samuel Loewenberg of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is currently in Guatemala producing a couple Worldfocus signature stories. He writes about the ongoing violence instigated by street gangs in Guatemala. Approximately 33 bus drivers have been killed so far this year.

In a country as bloody as Guatemala, the last two weeks have stood out. In the last several years, bus drivers have became targets for street gangs seeking extortion money. But the thugs are not breaking the drivers’ kneecaps — they are blowing their heads off. The number of bus drivers killed was around 80 last year.

Last week, as I was heading back from the countryside where I’d been visiting malnutrition clinics, the health worker who was acting as my guide told me that four bus drivers in Guatemala City had been killed all in the same day. During one attack, an infant was shot and killed.

A common theory, taken seriously by both government officials and everyday Guatemalans, was that this was something beyond mere street crime, but was in fact an effort by the right-wing opposition party to spread chaos and fear to undermine the current center-left government. Public officials received anonymous phone calls warning of an imminent coup.

When I asked a U.S. government official if a coup was likely, the answer was “probably not.”

There were fears the government might invoke martial law in response to the bus attacks. It didn’t, but many people hoped it would. The police here are perceived to be worse than useless — they are often considered to be corrupt and part of the problem.

During the elections in 2007 dozens of politicians were killed. It is a culture of impunity that permeates everyday life. This was underscored by a more openly political attack last week. Several days after the country’s human rights ombudsman released a report on atrocities from the country’s 36-year-old civil war, his wife was kidnapped and tortured with cigarette butts.

Thirteen years after the peace accords were signed here, violence and fear continue to be a way of life. Between the gangs, the narco-traffickers, and the looming military and police forces, Guatemala’s violent past continues to intrude in the present like an infected wound. After a long discussion about events both recent and past with a Guatemalan colleague (her father was tortured during the civil war, also with cigarettes), she cuts off the discussion: “I don’t like to talk about the past. It is not good to know too much history — it takes away your hope for the future.”

– Samuel Loewenberg

Watch for Worldfocus’ stories from Guatemala in the coming weeks.

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im from guatemala and my family and i currently live in the US. it makes me extremely worried and sad to hear of the violence that my country is going through right now.. i dont know whethear i wanna move over there anymore.. i dont know if i’ll be safe…


Thank you, J. Brew! We have corrected this.


Elections were in September 2007, not 2006.

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