Eight people, including a minor, were arrested Tuesday in Guatemala for allegedly extorting about $500,000 from bus drivers and operators over the past four years, officials said.
National Civilian Police, or PNC, officers and prosecutors made the arrests during searches of about a dozen dwellings in poor Guatemala City neighborhoods, an Interior Ministry spokesman told Efe.
"Via intelligence work, it was established that members of this gang got their orders from maras (youth gang members) being held in prison," the Interior Ministry spokesman said.
The gang, according to investigators, extorted money from bus drivers and operators in western and southwestern Guatemala City, demanding average payments of 50,000 quetzales (about $6,250) monthly in exchange for not killing them.
Investigators have determined that the gang extorted about 4 million quetzales ($500,000) from victims in the past four years, with most of the money being handed over to youth gang leaders, the Interior Ministry spokesman said.
Selvin Soto, Juan Jose Lopez, Horacio Gudiel, Marta de Leon, Dora Estrada, Felicita de Leon, Miguel Toma and an unidentified minor were handed over to a court for trial.
Street gangs, the majority of whose members are minors and women, expanded extortion schemes targeting bus drivers and operators, owners of small businesses and other merchants starting in 2008.
More than 250 drivers and other bus company employees, according to official figures, have been murdered in the past four years for refusing to pay gangs off.
Gangs, according to unofficial estimates, have extorted more than $15 million from bus companies and other businesses.
Street gangs are blamed for much of the violence plaguing this Central American nation.
Mara Salvatrucha, one of several gangs operating in Guatemala, is a particularly violent criminal organization that evolved on the streets of Los Angeles during the 1980s.
Most of the gang's members were young Salvadorans whose parents fled their nation's civil war for the United States.
Because many of the gang members were born in El Salvador, they were subject to deportation when rounded up during crackdowns in California in the 1990s.
Sent back "home" to a land they barely knew, they formed gangs in San Salvador that spread throughout the small nation and to neighboring countries in Central America, where membership is now counted in the tens, or even hundreds of thousands, and gang members are engaged in murder, drug dealing, extortion, kidnapping and people smuggling. EFE