Photographer Daniel LeClair works for Reuters and has been based in Central America since 1999, but is now facing the possibility that he will have to leave. The ongoing bus war and violence in Guatemala City, where he and his family have been living, has forced some changes. Here is the story in his own words:
“I can clearly remember the day the bus war escalated. It was 4 February 2008. Two extortionists were shot and killed while trying to collect a payment on a bus in downtown Guatemala City. Drivers, tired of paying thousands of dollars in extortion, had hired the assassins.
“As I photographed the scene, I overheard police telling each other this was a declaration of war. The response from gang members was brutal. Fifteen drivers and eight assistants were killed over the next three days. I would spend my whole day going from one bus driver’s murder to another, then to a funeral for the drivers killed the day before.
“The scenes were chaotic and similar. A driver would be on his route, his bus full of passengers. Suddenly a young man would stand up, approach the driver shooting him at close range in the head, then jump off the moving bus to a waiting motorcycle. The bus would career down the street, crashing into anything in its path. It was out of control, even drivers who made their payments were being killed. It wasn’t just the gangs doing the killing now. Drivers confessed privately that those who didn’t pay were also being targeted by their own peers, as one non-compliant driver on a route would inevitably make all of them a target.
“Gangs began to take hold in the 1990s, attracting impoverished and uneducated young men and women. Now they’ve become organized money-making enterprises, extorting businesses, including bus companies, for regular payments and assaulting people on the streets for cash. Narco traffickers have cemented their presence in Guatemala, taking advantage of the authorities’ inability to cope
“Three years on and drivers still get up every day to go to work, despite the knowledge that 450 of their colleagues have been killed. Sometimes when I photograph them on some of the most dangerous routes, I can sense the fear and tension. More than once they’ve dangerously cut off a suspicious motorcycle. Passengers seemed to trust no-one, not even me. Tactics have changed somewhat since the authorities have beefed up security on the buses and extortionists have responded by spraying whole vehicles with gunfire, killing many innocent passengers in the process.
“Once in March 2009, a woman, so stressed from witnessing a driver’s murder, spent 45 minutes trying to calm her crying baby at home before realizing the baby had been struck in the stomach by a deflected bullet. The baby died in the hospital.
“A new, modern, city-owned bus system has started to come online, with pre-paid tickets, assigned bus stops and better security but the violence has not abated. The old privately-owned buses continue to be attacked at a rate of two per week. As I wrote this, a driver from the 40R route has been attacked.
“I’ve been covering Central America for a decade – coups, riots, hurricanes and so on – but never seen violence like this. I have never seen so many innocent people caught in the middle. The tragedy is that Guatemala has so much to offer. It’s so beautiful and so full of wonderful people. As much as I love this place, I’ve already sent my family away, the future here is very uncertain.”