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Driving a bus is a ‘death sentence’ in El Salvador’s capital city

Blood is seen at a crime scene after a bus driver was killed by suspected gang members in San Salvador this week. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

Whether or not to drive a bus has become a life-or-death decision this week in El Salvador's capital city, where gangs are targeting drivers and causing a de facto strike.

Five drivers and another transportation worker were found dead Monday morning after two buses were set on fire over the weekend, Reuters reported. By Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Times and NPR both reported that at least nine transportation workers in and around San Salvador had been killed in the violence.

[El Salvador is on pace to become the hemisphere’s most deadly nation]

A driver buying fuel on the outskirts of San Salvador was shot to death Wednesday, AFP reported. Photojournalists captured images of Elias Emilio Melendez, 21, lying dead in the driver's seat of his bus. That same day, at least 142 routes were shut down, La Prensa Grafica reported.

Buses are one of the main modes of transportation in the San Salvador metro region, which is home to more than 1 million people. People have packed onto private trucks and military vehicles as alternatives.

Officials presented a plan Wednesday to normalize routes, dispatching military into the streets to provide protection. By Thursday, some routes returned to service under police and military escort, according to AFP, while other routes were newly shut down, La Prensa Grafica reported.

It's not entirely clear what these gangs hope to extract out of their threats and violent actions against drivers. For many years, gangs have been known to charge drivers "rentas," or extortion money, in order to operate.

"There is a death sentence for our people here who go out to work, for those who don't want to pay extortion," bus union president Genaro Ramirez said at Wednesday news conference, the Los Angeles Times reported. "Here [the authorities] have to be stronger. Things are getting worse."

The powerful and massive gangs may also want the government to go easier on them, including better conditions for imprisoned gang members, Reuters reported.

According to AFP:

Criminal gangs have been pressuring the government to include them in a commission examining ways to stem endemic urban violence for which these same groups are responsible to a large extent.

President Salvador Sanchez Ceren said this week that his government is not "willing to negotiate with criminals." He added the government will pursue "these murderers, these criminals" and "put them to justice."

The country's two major gangs -- Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 -- originated in Los Angeles and took hold in El Salvador when gang members were deported from the United States. Barrio 18 leader Cesar Vladimir Montoya Climaco was captured by authorities Tuesday night, the AP reported. Authorities said the gang is believed to be behind the violence against bus drivers.

El Salvador's murder rate is among the highest in the world. Last month, a record 677 murders took place in the relatively small Central American country, making it the deadliest month since the nation's brutal civil war ended in the early 1990s. During the first six months of 2015, there were 2,965 murders, up from 1,840 for the same period in 2014.

This follows the 2013 breakdown of a year-long truce between the government and the violent gangs, which had been credited with helping to reduce the daily murder rate.

As The Washington Post reported in May:

The new president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former leftist guerrilla commander during the civil war, opposes negotiations with the gangs. His government has transferred more inmates back to the maximum-security prison. Some see the surging death toll as a gang tactic to pressure the government; others contend that aggressive policing has provoked the gangs to lash out at officers, government officials and civilians. Police say a quarter of those killed this year were gang members, many slain by rivals but others by police. (Figures on police killings are not broken out.)
The gangs issued a statement last month saying that police are the most dangerous criminals and “what their actions are feeding is war.”
[Police ­sub-director Pedro Gonzalez, the leader of the anti-gang force] who didn’t support the truce, believes that the gangs used that time to rearm and consolidate power, and that they have been the aggressors.
“They gave the order to attack authorities of the system, the prisons, the prosecutors, police. To protest their decisions. This is why we have this quantity of deaths,” he said. “The gangs began to attack, and police have to defend themselves.”

Salvadorans are now trying to go about their daily lives as the government has stepped up efforts to normalize commutes. Local media reported 1,500 medical procedures had been postponed this week.

"But people are trying to get to work as best they can, walking or taking other options," photographer Oscar Machon told the Los Angeles Times. "They can't stop working because of this; they have to get by."


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