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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Manquila bus lines can't dodge violence in Mexico

The Headlight

Ciudad Juarez, Chih -- Ciudad Juárez has been called the "most violent city in the world," and in the year 2009 suffered over 2,700 homicides, including innocent women in their homes, cars or with their families in the markets.

This past year the violence includes extortionists demanding businessmen pay a "cuota" (protection payment) in order to avoid violent attacks. These businesses under attack include the maquilas (factories), funeral homes, bars and street vendors and musicians. It has not been unusual this past year to see in the local newspapers photographs of funeral homes that have been burned.

Recently one of the city bus lines has been hard hit. The city grants businessmen the right to run a bus through the city, mostly old school buses of the Thomas, International or Bluebird manufacture. The lines run continuously through the tight, curving neighborhood streets, 24/7.

One line, Linea 1-B, has so far resisted the demand by extortionists to pay 10,000 pesos per week per bus as their "cuota." As a result of this resistance Linea 1-B has been attacked several times. The bus yard was recently firebombed, destroying a number of buses. A bus was recently hijacked and used to drive through the security entry of a hardware shop that was also resisting the extortionists, pushing an old Impala through a heavy metal barrier blocking the entry.

On Tuesday morning, Dec. 29, 2009, a bus carrying passengers through a busy neighborhood fell victim to a drive-by shooting, destroying the engine and blowing out the wheels, sending passengers scattering for safety.

Sergio Granados, Secretary General of the local government, sought to calm riders by saying the armed attack upon the city bus "is an isolated incident very much based in that neighborhood. It was not an attack against the general population. The attack happened in order to demonstrate the seriousness of the threats, and as such was not an attack against the civilian population."

Nevertheless, after this attack, the drivers took time off in protest, resuming their runs in a much diminished capacity the following day. The drivers complain they have asked for police protection for months, and receive none. They say they have no other choice for work to feed their families, and must drive. There is no other job.

One driver, speaking anonymously, shared, "We go all day long with Jesus on our lips because of the fear we have." Another complained, "We are all afraid, including the passengers, and the Police nonetheless do nothing."

A few days later outside the Central Interurban Bus Station on the southern end of the large city, very few Linea 1-B buses passed. Several from other lines came every few minutes, two at a time for Linea 1-A and Linea #2 and Promissorio, yet it took an hour before a bus from Linea 1-B appeared during the busiest part of the day. The manager of the line reports it is hard to find drivers, and to replace the destroyed buses.

Upon reaching the end of his run, at the busy open market that spills out into the streets near the Cathedral in Zona Centro, the driver from Linea 1-B immediately lit up a cigarette and expressed thanks for having made it safely.

Several civic, academic and political groups united to plead the United Nations to send a multinational peace keeping force as in Bosnia, finding the local, state and federal authorities incompetent in providing security. President Calderon dismissed this idea, saying the violence is merely the fruit of an ongoing gang fight. Several university students have also been killed this past year.

Jhonny Escudero, a local musician who was famous in the city some three or four decades ago for being the only one then singing English language rock and roll, now sings in a small market with a guitarist whose son has been kidnapped to extort money. Escudero privately shared the popular perception expressed informally by many people that the authorities are behind the situation, and gave the common theory that the great number of city police who were fired this past year in an attempt to clean up the corruption are the same ones as the extortionists, that these are the same police who once grew rich receiving their protection "mordida" (bribe) from the businesses and now demand their quota to continue their lifestyle.

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