Carlos Miguel Palo had barely been back on the job for a week when the first terrifying call came in. It was August 2007 and Palo, a short, gregarious man in his early thirties (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), was driving his bus through the humid streets of Guatemala City. It had been a long time since he had been behind the wheel and he was happy to be there. Dressed in his usual wardrobe of brightly colored polo shirts, he joked with the other drivers and passengers as he went along his route.
Palo’s bus was part of the fleet of almost 10,000 privately owned urbano passenger buses that provides Guatemala City’s working class with cheap transportation. Every day, more than a million people—or a third of the city—use the buses, which are heavily subsidized by the government to keep them affordable. On a good day, Palo’s bus was packed throughout his entire 14-hour shift: students, housewives, day laborers, street vendors with woven shawls or baskets of cheap sunglasses.
Like most of the city’s buses, Palo’s was a Blue Bird, the ubiquitous American school bus; it had spent its early life in some far-off school district before being sold at auction and driven to Guatemala City. The bus system was good business: After years of working in the industry as a route supervisor, Palo had bought four buses as an investment and joined a cooperative named Transportes Libertad (the name of which has been changed to protect the owners’ identities). Until recently, he had rented this bus out to another driver for 300 quetzales a day, around $40. The driver was able to keep whatever fares he collected on top of that, which could be up to five times as much. But Palo had recently been laid off from another job at a trucking company. He was restless sitting at home, and with two children to support, he thought the money would be better off going to him.
On this particular day, Palo was winding through the city, heading from the working-class neighborhoods of Zone 6 to the downtown Terminal, a giant open-air bus station with pitted asphalt that serves as the bus system’s hub. The streets he passed had a fortified look—stores had bars on their windows and were flanked by private guards with pump-action shotguns. In the wake of the country’s 36-year civil war, the military and police had ceased to be effective forces; there were now far more private security guards than uniformed cops. Palo had no armed guard, but he wasn’t worried. There had been only occasional instances of petty crime against drivers, mostly robberies. Then his cell phone rang. It was the director of Libertad. Return immediately to the office, he told Palo. We have an emergency.
Palo rushed back to Libertad’s headquarters, a canary yellow row house in a quiet neighborhood in Zone 2, a little north of downtown. Inside, he found the director and the other bus owners gathered around a cheap, black disposable cell phone. A young man had dropped it off at the office, demanded that it be given to the directors, then left.
There, in the crowded office, the phone lit up. A man’s voice came on the line. It was calm, almost pleasant. You’re going to pay us taxes now, the voice said: 8,000 quetzales a week—about $1,000. If you don’t, we’re going to start killing your bus drivers.
Palo and the rest of the owners looked at the phone, then at each other. Anyone could get a cell phone, drop it off, and make demands. “We thought someone was just trying to take advantage of us,” Palo said.
The owners voted not to pay. Twenty minutes later, a young man, the son of one of Libertad’s bus owners, was driving his bus along Route 4, which ran from the Terminal down to the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala in the southern part of the city. As he passed through Zone 6, two men flagged down the bus. They boarded it without paying and shot the driver in the head.
In the Libertad office, the phone rang again. We left you a present, the voice on the other end said. Will you pay now?
The owners were terrified. Many had sons, brothers, or fathers driving their buses. Going to the police was out of the question: A murderer in Guatemala stood about a 5 percent chance of being convicted. This time, the owners didn’t hesitate.
Palo quit driving immediately. “I was too scared,” he recalled. He hired back Juan Perez Panlo Gutieres, his previous driver, and took a desk job at Libertad. This turned out to be a wise decision. Over the next few years, some 40 Libertad drivers would be killed, and the company would pay more than $600,000 in extortion. And Libertad wasn’t the only company under threat. All over the city, cheap cell phones appeared in bus-company offices. Anonymous voices demanded money. In almost all cases, it was paid. And still the killings continued. Several times a week, the city’s yellow press would carry graphic photos of drivers slumped in their seats, their clothes spattered with blood. In one case, three men boarded a bus and took their seats, only to get up minutes later and discharge their weapons into the driver as the driver’s assistant fled in terror. In another, attackers opened fire on the bus with AK-47s, killing the driver and wounding six passengers, among them a four-year-old girl. Libertad’s director and most of its board fled to the United States. In 2009, Palo and his friends took over the board. Two years later, his driver, Gutieres, was murdered by two men who fired into his bus as they drove by on a motorcycle.
Gutieres’s death left Palo in an impossible position. By this point, driving a bus in Guatemala had become one of the most dangerous jobs in the world: 156 drivers had been killed the previous year, and 550 total since the killings started—a wave of bus terror on a Middle Eastern scale. Driving an urbano bus had become—and remains—far more lethal than infamously dangerous jobs like logging or deep-sea fishing. Workers in these jobs earn about $36,000 per year but compared with urbano drivers, they’re well compensated for their risk: The latter only earn on average $38 a day. No Guatemalan in his right mind would buy a bus, which meant Palo was trapped. He had invested all his savings and taken out loans to get his four buses. He had to find a new driver.
A week after Gutieres’s death, a young man showed up in Palo’s office. He was 25 years old, dark, and stocky, with a flat nose and black hair in a mullet under a trucker’s cap. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up, revealing tattoos on his shoulders: the names of his mother, Elisabet, and infant son, Jesus, in looping cursive script. He asked for a chance to drive Gutieres’s bus.
The young man’s name was Jose Antonio Godinez Carrera. Godinez had an adolescent charm and a taste for women and drinking with his friends. But this happy-go-lucky exterior concealed a steely ambition: Godinez was determined to become a bus driver. When his hands were on the wheel and his foot on the gas, he felt free and powerful, capable of anything.
Palo had met Godinez years before, when Godinez had worked for a driver named Edy as an ayudante: one of the helpers, mostly teenaged boys, who the drivers hired to call out route numbers and collect change from passengers. Godinez had impressed Palo as a go-getter who was unafraid of violence. He had learned to drive in the traditional manner of the Guatemalan streets, taught by Edy under the table. When Edy was shot before Godinez’s eyes, another victim in the rash of murders, Godinez was stunned, but not too stunned to take advantage of the opportunity. He had gone to the bus owner and asked for Edy’s bus. The owner gave it to him—at least, until he found out that Godinez didn’t actually have a driver’s license. Now Godinez was here, looking for another chance.
Palo liked to bemoan that the city’s driver pool used to be composed of older, responsible men, men you could trust. Now they had quit or were dead, the end result of three decades of war and a series of bad decisions made in the faraway United States. A young, hungry man like Godinez was the best hope he had.
Palo knew that it was likely Godinez would not live out the year. If this bothered him, he never said. Godinez got the job.
As was the custom among drivers, Godinez tricked out Palo’s bus, getting a friend to paint a busty rabbit in a halter-top seductively combing back her ears on the folding side door. Above her head, the friend wrote “House of Place,” which the two thought was English for “House of Pleasure.” Godinez took over Palo’s old route. He hired his little brother, Luis, as an ayudante and set off.
Every day, Godinez crossed town a dozen times, from Zone 6 in the west to Colonia Jardines in the east, the cliff-side slum where he’d grown up. He sped in endless circles through the city, racing other drivers for passengers. In an effort to stem the murders, the city had prohibited buses from pulling over at unsanctioned stops, since assassins preferred to flag down buses at random points. Few drivers followed these rules; Godinez rapidly began accumulating a rap sheet for illegal stops.
It wasn’t surprising that drivers ignored the ban. Ingrained in Guatemalan society is a well-founded suspicion of the police. In 1954, a generation before Godinez was born, the CIA overthrew the new civilian government of President Jacobo Arbenz. Its intention was to crush reforms that threatened the aristocracy, as well as the U.S.-based United Fruit Company, a major landholder in Guatemala. This plunged the country into 40 years of brutal dictatorship as general overthrew general for control of the country. While the army ravaged the highlands, burning farms and massacring Mayan communities in a long U.S.-backed war against “subversives,” refugees and war orphans crowded Guatemala City. Inside the city, the police waged its own war against those it considered enemies of the state. Over 40,000 simply vanished, their bodies ending up in unmarked graves or ravines.
Along Godinez’s route, rows of smiling, young faces, photos of the vanished, were pasted to walls. In recent years, their families had put up the photos, more in memorial than in any hope of justice. The country’s civil war had ended in an agreement that none of the military would be prosecuted for anything that happened during the war. Efraín Ríos Montt, the dictator-general who had ordered some of the worst massacres of the 1980s, still served in Congress, having recently retired as president of that body. This lack of reconciliation had weakened people’s faith in government institutions, leaving a power vacuum on the street.
The civil war fractured Guatemalan society in other ways as well. By the 1980s, when Godinez was born, the residents of his neighborhood, an impoverished concrete warren on the side of one of the city’s steep ravines, were fleeing north to cities like Los Angeles. Many took their young children with them. But the Reagan administration supported the Central American dictatorships as valuable allies in the war on communism and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was reluctant to grant them asylum; it classified the Guatemalans as “economic migrants,” essentially barring them from legal status. In Los Angeles, the refugees huddled in the shadows of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. They worked menial jobs and mingled with refugees from other Central American dirty wars.
Their children grew up in a no-man’s land, neither at home in Guatemala nor allowed to be part of the United States. To defend themselves from the Angeleno gangs who ran their neighborhoods, they formed their own. They tattooed their bodies and faces. They adopted Spanglish. Most importantly, they developed a fanatical devotion to respect. Shaped by the legacy of the war their parents had fled, they became so well known for brutal violence that other Latin gangs began using them as mercenaries.
The two largest Central American gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang, were so famous for their rivalry that the Mexican Mafia, Southern California’s most powerful Latino gang, brought them into the Sur—for Southern United Raza—a non-aggression pact brokered years before among Southern California’s gangs. The treaty forbade members from raping the women of enemy gangs or attacking adversaries in front of their families. Most importantly, it outlawed fighting in prison among the gangs.
In the early ’90s, following the L.A. riots, the U.S. government blamed Southern California gangs for the street violence and used it as an excuse to deport them. Thousands of 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha gang members served out their prison sentences and were deported to homelands they barely remembered and where they did not speak the language. A number were under 20. Uprooted twice, they were lost boys cast adrift in the great city.
The Guatemalan civil war officially ended in 1996, but it left behind stark inequality. In the green suburbs surrounding the city, the rich lived lives analogous to those in the suburbs of Houston or Los Angeles. In Godinez’s neighborhood, people scrambled to get by, frequently working as day laborers or in the houses of the wealthy—nominally for a minimum wage of around $3 a day, although many actually earned less than that. The year of the peace accords, the United States passed major immigration reforms that led to the biggest mass deportation of Central Americans yet. What had been a trickle of returning mareros, or gang members, suddenly became a flood. In the cliff-side slums of Guatemala City, including Colonia Jardines, the Southern California gangs began to once again grow and recruit.
Godinez never joined a gang, but that seems to be largely because he joined the bus business first. The son of a maid and a motorcycle deliveryman, Godinez had known from an early age that he wanted to be a bus driver. At the age of five, he had watched the red city buses pass through his neighborhood. The drivers had seemed godlike, then, the masters of powerful machines. At 13, he quit school and went to work as an ayudante. Later, his brothers would follow him into the industry. This was not uncommon: For entire families, the bus-driving community served as a social network and de facto gang.
But for other kids from his neighborhood, including the armies of street kids and war orphans, the real gangs filled this niche. There was one boy in particular, the same age as Godinez, a neighborhood bully named Chato, who saw a future in gang life. The two ran in the same crowd—Godinez remembers Chato bullying him. But their lives seemed to diverge when at the same time Godinez became an ayudante, Chato joined one of the new cliques of the 18th Street Gang, now known as Barrio 18. Like thousands of other boys, after a brief apprenticeship, Chato was surrounded by three older boys and beaten savagely for 18 seconds. Then he was in.
Guatemala’s civilian government eventually figured out the extent of the gang takeover of the streets. Squadrons of police raided the slums, arresting those suspected of being mareros; often, just having tattoos was enough. Soon Guatemala’s prisons were overflowing with Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 members. But locking the gang members up did nothing to stop recruitment or gang communication with the outside: The mareros simply smuggled cell phones and weapons into prison and continued their work. As the L.A. generation died in battle or slipped back north to the United States, a new generation came up. This was Chato’s generation—Guatemalan-born, hardened by prison. As the gangs battled for control of Guatemala City’s streets, it seemed more and more to Chato’s generation that the limited war of the Sur was a problem.
On August 15, 2005, the truce fell apart. In nine Guatemalan prisons, the Salvatruchas attacked Barrio 18 with guns and grenades they had smuggled in, killing 36 of them. The murders were coordinated among the Salvatrucha leaders in the various prisons on conference calls by cell phone. Barrio 18 was stunned; surviving members tattooed the date of the great betrayal onto their faces and bodies. Leaders who had advocated peace with the Salvatruchas were executed in the prisons by their fellows. Across Central America, the two gangs went to war.
Until that point, Barrio 18 had been largely a gang of young delinquents; stealing cars, robbing stores, getting into knife fights in the streets. They had been a hyper-violent social club for boys like Chato, a sort of surrogate family. After the Sur broke, all that changed.
To destroy the traitor Salvatruchas, they needed guns. To get guns, they needed money. All over the city, the gangs stepped up their operation to become a sort of pirate government. The trade they offered was simple: taxation in its crudest form. Cambias tu vida por dinero. Your money for your life.
By 2010, Carlos Miguel Palo and the rest of Libertad’smanagement suspected that the gangs were behind the driver killings, although they had no proof. Every week, they gave the money to a trusted mechanic who dropped it off to a young woman in the food court of the nearby mall. Still, every now and then, a driver would end up shot. Despite the violence, Palo continued to pay. “We all felt that we were under their control,” he said. “That if we didn’t pay, it would be worse.”
Then in the middle of 2010, a year or so after Palo had risen to the board, Libertad’s anonymous extortionist upped his demands. He wanted 20,000 quetzales now, every week, or else. Palo had a sudden realization: “If we paid them more, later it would have been forty thousand, then eighty thousand. If we gave in, it was never going to end.”
The board voted to refuse the increase, and it fell to Palo to give this news to the extortionist. That night, he came home to find a note folded in his front door. The message on it was written in colorful letters, cut out from the tabloids. Its spelling was creative, but the meaning was clear. The extortionists, who now identified themselves as members of Barrio 18, were unhappy with Libertad’s decision. They blamed Palo. Quit your job, the note demanded, or your family will pay the consequences. We know how to find your wife and kids.
Around this terrifying time, Palo got a call from Ricardo Guzman, from the Ministerio Público (MP), the state prosecutor’s office. Guzman belonged to the MP’s new organized crime unit; he had been assigned to tackle the growing problem of driver homicides. Palo was skeptical that Guzman could do anything, even if he was honest. But Guzman was persistent and Palo was desperate. He knew the gang was closing in. His car was stolen; it turned up on the edge of the city—riddled with bullets. He moved his family to a gated neighborhood far outside the city and went underground. There were days he found himself sitting in traffic, alone in his new car, sobbing with rage and impotence. There was nothing he could do but wait till the cops found the gang or the gang members found him.
Guzman’s agents sat in the office with Palo when he got calls from the gang; they shadowed the bagman while he handed off the money. Gradually, they began to piece together the identities of the extortionists. They came from a smaller clique of Barrio 18, which claimed Godinez’s old neighborhood. It was Crazy Rich, Chato’s gang.
In August 2010, Guzman’s men struck, arresting twelve gang members. Palo allowed himself a sigh of relief. With the MP’s support, Libertad stopped paying extortion. Palo’s family was back together.
Then in early September, one of Palo’s drivers came into his office. He was holding a cell phone. A gang member dropped this off, he said. The next day, the phone rang. It was a different voice, but the demand was the same: Money for lives. Either you pay, or we start killing drivers again.
But Palo had decided that he was done paying off the gangs. During Guzman’s investigation, his men had found that Libertad drivers, friends of Crazy Rich members, had funneled information about the owners and other drivers to the gang. Now, Palo no longer trusted any of Libertad’s drivers. “I told the drivers they could pay if they wanted to, but Libertad was done,” he said.
This was the situation Godinez inherited when he got the job. At the end of the day, on top of what he was paying Palo to rent the bus, and his brother or his cousin to work as ayudante, he also had to come up with 100 quetzales a week, or about $15, to pay Crazy Rich directly. If he missed the payments, he died.
Paying his own extortion put him into direct contact with what was left of Crazy Rich. With much of the gang in prison, his old enemy, Chato, was in charge of picking up money. Chato and his marero friends would steal things from Godinez or from his passengers. They’d insult him and push him around. This went on through the rest of 2011 and into 2012. Godinez had no recourse; the mareros were the law on the streets. Within their chosen territories, they went where they wanted, killed whom they wished. There was nothing Godinez could do but accept it.
Then, one Friday evening last October, Godinez reached his breaking point. As he was bringing his bus back from his day’s run, Chato boarded, three mareros at his back. They demanded the rent, even though he’d already paid. They raided the cash box. They took his radio and his younger brother Luis’s cell phone. “Hey,” Godinez said, “don’t mess with him on my account. This is about me, leave him alone.” Chato’s response was to break his ribs. Godinez thought, “They are never going to stop, they are never going to go away. I have to end this myself.”
Saturday passed quietly, with no sign of Chato. On Sunday night, Godinez and Luis were driving down 10th Avenue, a little south of downtown. It was dark, no pedestrians on the street, nothing around but shuttered convenience stores covered in graffiti tags. A figure flagged down the bus. It was Chato. But this time, he’d made a mistake. He was alone.
Chato got on the bus. Before he could speak, the brothers threw him out of the bus and onto the street and began to punch him. When he fell over, they started kicking him. “We were trying to kill him,” Godinez said. “There was no other way. He was never going to stop. We hit him and hit him. When he stopped moving, we left him on the street and got in the bus and drove away.”
The next morning, the brothers started work, as usual, at 4 a.m. At noon, Godinez got a call from a friend in the old neighborhood. “Chato’s looking for you,” his friend said. “He’s going to kill you. You’ve got to get out of here.” Godinez called Palo. “I can’t keep working,” he said. “They’re going to finish me off. I don’t know what to do.”
By the time I came to Guatemala City in February 2013, the country seemed to have reached a moment of reckoning. Violence had become mundane, part of the way things were. But like Godinez, people were starting to ask: How much more can we take? There was a feeling that it was time to chart a more civilized future. Symbolic of this effort, the national court was gearing up to try Ríos Montt, the former dictator-turned-congressman, for genocide. In May, he was found guilty and sentenced to 80 years in prison. But three weeks later, Guatemala’s top court annulled the verdict, effectively restarting the trial. The question remains whether Guatemalans will truly be able to heal and rebuild through the government institutions they are still weary of trusting or whether, like Godinez, they will answer the violence with more violence.
There is also the question of how to reintegrate gang members into society, a question that no one, not even the mareros themselves, seems to know how to answer. In the current climate of unabashed crime, it was alarmingly easy to meet them. A Mexican friend who was doing a book on the Mara Salvatruchas had met some Barrio 18 members through an NGO that worked with former gang members. From there, it was just social networking until someone passed me on to a couple of guys in Chato’s gang, Crazy Rich.
We met at the Sbarro pizzeria in the food court at the Oakland Mall, probably the fanciest mall in the country. They wore hoodies to cover their tattoos and introduced themselves as Joker and Smurf. They were both 25, which made them, in marero years, well past middle age. Joker had been in Barrio 18 since he was eleven; Smurf since he was 14. As initiated gang members, they could make about 1,000 quetzales a week—less than a driver. I was stunned, talking to them, by how open they were. They didn’t brag; they didn’t seem especially proud of what they did. They talked about extortion and murder as though they were explaining the technicalities of some legitimate business. Killing the drivers, they told me, was regrettable but necessary. After all, anyone could have a cell phone; if they didn’t kill drivers, no one would know that they were for real. They talked for a while about respect, about honoring “the word.”
I said, “I’ve heard lots of stories about drivers who got killed, even though—”
“They were paying the renta?” Joker asked. “Listen, what you need to understand here is, the press here is very yellow. They like to say that people have been killed who have been paying when they haven’t been.”
“Look,” Smurf said, “sometimes guys make mistakes.”
Once it was clear that I would listen to what they had to say, Smurf and Joker talked on and on. They talked about the impossibility of abandoning the gang. “We can’t leave,” Smurf said. “The penalty is ...”
He glanced at Joker, who nodded, pointed his fingers at the table, and made a shooting sound.
“Anyway,” he said, “we can’t find jobs. No one hires you if you have marero tattoos.”
“Va,” Joker said, “they make you take your shirt off so they can see if you’re clean.”
I asked what they’d do if they could leave. Their response was unequivocal. They would go north. Find good jobs, make good money. They wouldn’t belong to a gang.
But while more mareros have made it back to America over the past 15 years, the economic situation in this country hasn’t made it easy for them to abandon gang life. In fact, on both sides of the border, the gangs seem to end up in the same rackets: There have recently been reports that Salvatrucha members have taken to extorting businesses in American slums, including a hair salon in Houston. It wasn’t so clear to me that they could leave. By the end of the conversation, Smurf and Joker seemed as trapped as the bus drivers they preyed on.
After finding out Chato was looking for him, Godinez parked the bus in a company lot and went underground. He hid out at a girlfriend’s house until just before Christmas and didn’t leave “even to go to the store.” He was filled with anger and regret. “If I’d had a pistol,” he told me, “I could have killed him right then, and no one would have ever known it was us. But I didn’t, and so now I have nothing to do but hide.”
After two months, he couldn’t take it any more. He called Carlos Miguel Palo and asked for his bus back. Palo put him on a different route, far from Chato’s turf. But the new route runs through mostly middle-class neighborhoods, where fewer people ride the bus. When I met Godinez, he had spent three 14-hour days driving and walked away without enough money to eat. When I asked him why he kept doing it, he shrugged: “This is my job. What else am I going to do?” Still, like the Crazy Rich gang members, he seemed desperate for a way out. He talked about quitting Libertad and finding a more lucrative driving job. He talked about trying to make it into America. But most of all, he talked about saving up enough money to buy a pistol, find Chato, and end things for good.
One February evening, Godinez and his brother Luis got in the bus to drive it to the all-night gas station in the Terminal, where they parked at night and slept. By this point, 900 drivers had been killed and Palo had two of Libertad’s security guards assigned to Godinez’s bus full time. But on this particular night, they had already gone home. Godinez turned the key in the bus. It didn’t start.
Libertad’s mechanic was in Zone 6: Crazy Rich territory. At dawn, Godinez got the bus working and chugged down to the mechanic. He parked a stone’s throw from the National Police Academy; across the street were dozens of black-clad cops walking around with submachine guns. But this gave Godinez little comfort. He knew that, if Chato and his fellow Crazy Rich members caught wind that he was there, they’d kill him in broad daylight.
It was a hot day and the concrete was so bright it was hard to look at. Godinez, stripped down to a wife-beater, slouched in his seat. The mechanic came; Godinez handed him some of yesterday’s fare-money for repairs. Godinez fiddled with his MP3 player. A Black Eyed Peas song came on over the bus speakers. As a child, he had dreamed of being the lord of a bus, the master of his own domain. Now all he could do was look out its window, warily watching for guns. He lit another cigarette. He settled down to wait.
Saul Elbein is a freelance writer and contributing editor at The Texas Observer. He lives in Austin, Texas.