Driving a bus, paying the gangs
The letter's message was eminently clear, "From today, all bus drivers must give us a special contribution of their salary if they do not want attacks against their lives. Signed: Barrio 18."
One of us there took the paper to the bus route manager. The amount of money requested was exceptionally high for each driver to have to pay. I don't remember well if it was maybe $200 or $300. Immediately our boss called a meeting and the following day we spoke about it.
This passage from The Bus Route That Institutionalized Extortion in El Salvador describes the basic threat hanging over all private bus companies in El Salvador: driving a bus requires paying extortion payments to the country's street gangs. The article on the InsightCrime website and originally published by RevistaFactum has a candid interview with a bus driver whose employer decided to fund the extortion payments with payroll deductions from his employees' paychecks. It's treated as a necessary cost of doing business, and a necessary protection for the drivers and conductors on the bus routes.
But at least one other bus company takes a different approach, as set out in The El Salvador Businessman Who Does Not Pay the Gangs, from El Faro and also republished in English on the InsightCrime website. Bus company owner Catalino Miranda refuses to pay extortion money to the gangs. Instead he spends tens of thousands of dollars on his own private security force. Yet this approach still takes a real toll on his employees. More than two dozen drivers and conductors have been murdered by the gangs in the last twelve years. Many drivers make their own private deals with the gangs to avoid the same fate as their co-workers.
The common element in the approaches by the two bus company owners is their rejection of reporting the extortion of the police. Such reporting is viewed as either pointless or foolhardy as no one believes that the police have the capacity to stop the gangs most profitable business. Why risk attacks from the gangs by making a police report which will accomplish nothing?