December 16, 2009 / 5:06 PM / 9 years ago

Guatemalan extortionists demand Christmas bonuses

Passengers on a bus look at a slain assailant through the windows of another bus in Guatemala City March 24, 2009. REUTERS/Daniel LeClair

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Extortionists in Guatemala who force payments from bus operators are demanding an extra chunk this month — their Christmas bonus, bus drivers and owners say.

Street gangs have made a lucrative business extorting close to $10,000 a day from the country’s rickety buses. They bully bus owners and drivers into forking out monthly payments of around $180, the country’s bus owner’s association says.

Many extortionists are now asking for 50 percent extra in December, in line with a tradition across mainly Catholic Latin America of paying salaried employees a Christmas bonus.

“They ask for more in December so they can make the most of the Christmas holidays and go to the beach,” said one driver who pays the Mara 18, a gang that operates across Central America living off drug dealing and armed assault.

Work typically stops in Guatemala for two weeks over the festive season while families gather to feast on dishes like chicken-filled corn tamales before heading to the beach or the countryside to celebrate New Year with local beers and rum.

Street gang extortion is a blight across Central America, where many families live on just a handful of dollars a day. Gangs readily resort to violence if people don’t pay up.

In Guatemala, where buses are the main form of transport, more than 170 bus drivers and fare collectors have been murdered this year over nonpayment of extortion money.

Killers often pull up to buses on the back of motorbikes and open fire on the driver. New rules banning motorcyclists from carrying passengers and making them display their license plate numbers on their clothes have not curbed the killing from carrying passengers and making them display their license plate numbers on their clothes have not curbed the killings. “It’s an easy way to make money. We’ve captured around 800people this year for extortion but it’s growing and e very still scarred from a 1960-96 civil war, Guatemala counted more than 6,000 murders last year in a country of 13 million people. (Editing by Catherine Bremer)

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