First, they receive a letter or a mobile phone, which relay demands for daily payments of 50 to 100 quetzales ($6 to $12), more than half of what most bus drivers earn. Then the threats begin: drivers are told to pay up or risk losing their buses or even their lives.
For Contrauvin, a commuter bus cooperative founded more than 50 years ago in Villa Nueva, a city southwest of the capital, the extortion started in 2002. Samuel Rodriguez Prado, a bus driver and currently president of the cooperative, explains that members would report the racket to police, but to no avail. “We would file the complaints, the police would provide security for a short while, but there was no continuity”, he says.
In 2004, a U.S.-backed model precinct was set up in the municipality. Within a few years “things started to change”, Rodriguez says. “We began to have assistance on a continuous basis”. Investigators, using the letters and phones sent to the drivers, led negotiations, identified the criminals and arrested them. But collaboration with the police came at a cost. In 2006, six Contrauvin bus drivers were murdered by gangs, something that had never happened before. “Until then, there had only been threats, by means of burning down buses or breaking the windows”, he says.
Only recently have police been able to combine more effective investigations with preventive measures to give bus drivers and other small business owners the confidence to resist extortionist demands. “Since January, there are more patrols providing security to the community”, says Contrauvin’s president. “Things have improved lately”.
His impression is backed up by the numbers. According to the government ministry which oversees police, immigration and prisons, 185 people were killed in Villa Nueva from January to June 2011. Within the first six months of this year, that number dropped to 133. But Rodriguez Prado says drivers with other local bus companies are still being shaken down, threatened and sometimes killed. He says that, thanks to Contrauvin’s cooperation with investigators from the model precinct, only one member of the cooperative has been killed since 2008.
It is too early to know what combination of factors is behind the drop in homicides and whether the trend will continue. But police and local leaders believe that better law enforcement combined with citizen cooperation explains the downturn in violence.
Villa Nueva is a sprawling working-class town. During the 1950s, it became the country’s main industrial hub. But in the 1970s and ‘80s, migrants from rural areas – many fleeing armed conflict – poured into the city, creating huge informal settlements. Estimates of Villa Nueva’s population vary widely: official census data puts it at 527,000. The local government says the city has up to one million residents.
In 2004, a pilot “model precinct” program was launched in Villa Nueva, with funding from the U.S. government. The model precinct approach includes community-oriented patrols provided with training in preventive policing, plus anti-corruption measures, like the random vetting of police. The program has had mixed results, due in part to resistance from within the National Civil Police (PNC) and lack of cooperation from local authorities. While homicide rates have declined since 2009 in Guatemala Cityand Mixco, a neighbouring municipality also suffering from gang-related violence, it has fluctuated in Villa Nueva.
This may be changing. The new mayor of Villa Nueva, Edwin Escobar, who took office in mid-January, has put security at the top of his agenda. He has promised to prevent crime and reclaim public space by providing street lighting, security cameras connected to a central monitoring station and more community patrols, including national and municipal police backed by soldiers.
On inauguration day in mid-January, the new mayor decided to forgo the traditional celebrations and get to work. “When the mayor was taking his oath of office, we were already setting up cameras in Mario Alioto”, says city Secretary Ricardo Antonio Córdova Zepeda. The Mario Alioto asentamiento, founded when the original residents took over government-owned land in 1995, was known as a “red zone”, where gangs operated freely. It now has 43 cameras, monitored from city hall, and police patrols circulate regularly. Local authorities say that killings used to be a daily occurrence in Mario Alioto. But they claim that the six months after the cameras were installed saw only two murders in the neighbourhood.
The monitoring station at city hall was made possible with contributions from the municipal and national governments, helped by local business. Such a system would be too expensive for the city to finance alone. According to local government officials, each camera costs $4,800. Add the expense of monitoring, maintenance, patrolling, and fibre optic lines and the price tag climbs to $11,000 for every camera installed. The municipality pays most of the fixed costs; the government ministry has provided some cameras and funded installation of the fibre optic network; and, the private sector has pulled together funding for the monitoring station.
The station functions as a control room, where the closed circuit TV images converge. National and municipal police watch computer monitors while soldiers are ready to join them on patrol and provide logistical support. All these activities are coordinated by the city government.
The surveillance cameras are placed at strategic spots throughout the city. If a crime is reported, the officers at the monitoring station can track suspects’ movements. The station then communicates with police patrols to secure the area.
City authorities say Mayor Escobar and his staff visited Medellin and Bogotá, Colombia, as well as La Paz, Bolivia, to learn first-hand how other Latin American cities are coping with high crime rates. One lesson is that such efforts do not rely on better policing alone. Also key is improving municipal services. So the city government is providing more public lighting, placing new street lamps on main roads and other public spaces. Paving and drainage are also a top priority.
In late March, some major streets in Mario Alioto remained unpaved or littered with potholes. Three months later, there was visible progress: more streets were paved, lined with spacious sidewalks, and newly erected street lamps.
Another illustration of this policy is a lakeside park known as Paseo del Lago (Promenade of the Lake). It used to be a landfill on the shores of Lake Amatitlán, where criminals would dispose of corpses. The local government decided to clean up the dump and convert it into a park, opening it to the public in mid-March. Today, there is a bike lane and pedestrian walkways, plus benches, a barbeque area and a garden tended by local high school students.
Villa Nueva has benefited from the joint efforts of the local and national governments, the private sector and foreign donors. Whether the changes are sustainable remains unclear. But residents, including local business people such as Rodriguez Prado of Contrauvin, seem hopeful. “We are witnessing a positive change”, he said in March. Four months on, asked whether he remained optimistic, his reply was affirmative. “It’s even improved another notch”, he says.
Photos are courtesy of author Bernardo Jurema, Crisis Group’s Guatemala Researcher. View more photos from his trip to Villa Nueva.