One of the most troubling aspects in El Salvador's recent surge in violent crime has been the dramatic growth in instances of extortion. Gangs and other criminal elements, including corrupt police, have been implicated in demanding protection money from bus operators. In an article titled Your Money or Your Life, Raúl Gutiérrez looks at the problem:
SAN SALVADOR, Feb 15 (IPS) - Bus drivers and conductors are being targeted by extortionists and murderers in El Salvador. Lack of security, which also afflicts other trades, has become a profitable business opportunity for criminals and police alike.
At first, the authorities assumed that gangs were responsible for the crimes, but some members of the business community reported that police were taking advantage of the climate of impunity and muscling in on the business, which has already cost the lives of dozens of transport workers for not paying protection money....
In 2006, this kind of violence killed at least 70 drivers and conductors in the transport trade. In January 2007 another six people were killed and 25 buses were torched. This is the result of many people having refused to pay protection money or "taxes" to gangs running extortion rackets.
The public transport system has a nationwide fleet of about 12,000 buses. The state grants concessions to bus owners, who may own from one to dozens of buses, to provide transport on a given route. There are very few real bus companies or cooperatives.
Rodrigo Contreras Teos, president of the Salvadoran Chamber of the Transport Industry, said that violence has overwhelmed the response capacity of the state, leaving society and the transport sector at the mercy of the extortionists.
"We are trapped by a monster whose tentacles grow daily, and that has the ability to control territories, arm itself to the teeth and buy the compliance of the authorities. This is very similar to the situation in the United States in the 1930s," Contreras Teos told IPS, referring to the era when organised crime, with Al Capone as its best known boss, ruled the U.S....
A PNC source confirmed to IPS that 2006 saw a significant increase in extortion compared to previous years. In 2005 there were barely 493 official complaints, whereas in 2006 these shot up to 2,485. In 2003, there were only 290 complaints filed. The spokesperson declined, however, to give details about members of the police force who have been accused of extortion and other crimes.
At the end of 2006, the head of the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP), Jeannette Aguilar, told IPS that El Salvador was suffering from an authority vacuum in which criminals, organised or otherwise, take possession of territories and impose their rules, to the astonishment of a defenceless population. (more)