Commissioners: James L. Cavallaro, Margarette May Macaulay

Petitioners: Gretexpa / Cámara Interamericana de Transporte

State: State of Guatemala

On March 20, 2017, the Interamerican Transportation Chamber, an organization of sixteen countries in predominantly South America that monitors transportation issues, and the Extra-urban Passenger Transport Association (Gretexpa), a union for extra-urban transport workers in Guatemala, petitioned the State of Guatemala to address the impact of organized crime on extra-urban transport. Petitioners brought the issue to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) because they believe the government has repeatedly failed to address their demands and they want a third party to oversee the discussion and facilitate progress.

Extra-urban transport in Guatemala refers to transportation that is not State-subsidized and predominantly serves the poorest residents of Guatemala. Petitioners call it “second class transportation,” explaining that the State subsidizes “first class” transportation for tourists, while neglecting transportation for Guatemala’s impoverished population.  The Extra-urban Passenger Transport Association, who represented their union members, explained that the violence experienced by their drivers is due to the State’s failure to address organized crime in Guatemala. Drivers are frequently the victims of extortion; gangs will demand money for their “right” to work, and if the drivers do not pay then they are killed. Some drivers have even been subject to terrorist attacks, such as bombs blowing up their buses. The Association stated their members have been accused of supporting organized crime for paying the extortion money, but argued that because they receive no economic support from the State, they must pay the extortion to keep working. “We shouldn’t stand for this extortion system in Guatemala,” exclaimed the president of the Association.

The Interamerican Transportation Chamber pointed out that Guatemala’s transportation laws are from 1946 and do not meet today’s demands. The organization also pointed out that these laws impose penalties on drivers that sometimes equal up to half a year’s wages. They asserted that they will take this issue to the United Nations.

The State of Guatemala’s lawyers responded by acknowledging the issues posed by outdated laws and organized crime. The State argued that it has tried to modernize its transportation laws; however, any efforts have been vigorously opposed by those in the transportation sector due to the high costs of modernizing. The State also believes drivers are opposed to modernizing because they enjoy the current system of being paid in cash.

The State did acknowledge the problem of organized crime, and more specifically, the problem of drivers being killed for not paying the extortion. The State also expressed concern, though, for the fact that statistically most driver’s deaths are caused by reckless driving accidents. Petitioners felt this comment was off topic. The State went on to explain how the government has carried out numerous operations to successfully capture the leaders of gangs and has established a mobile app and telephone number for reporting extortion. So far this year, 103 people associated with organized crime have been arrested and police have seized firearms, cell phones, and vehicles used for conducting organized crime. The State estimates that these investigations have saved Guatemalans from 165 potential murders, thirty-one of which would have been drivers. Petitioners argued that the numbers have dropped because drivers are paying the extortion.

After a discussion with James L. Cavallaro and Margarette May Macaulay, the Commissioners moderating this hearing, both sides seemed to agree that it would be useful to modernize the payment system of extra-urban transport drivers from cash to prepaid cards. Petitioners stated that prepaid cards would make drivers safer, since currently they are targeted for the large sums of cash that they carry. Petitioners want the State to fund the establishment of these prepaid card systems and expressed concern for rural areas that have no electricity, which would make it difficult to set up stands that could sale and refill the cards. The State argued that this is not an issue because people in rural areas regularly buy and refill phone cards and can use the same process for prepaid cards. The State did not comment on subsidizing the establishment of a prepaid card system.

Commissioner Macaulay encouraged both sides to continue these discussions with a neutral third party. “The poor need transportation,” she said, “and the country needs them to be transported.”

Author’s Legal Analysis:

The State of Guatemala is discriminating against their impoverished citizens by allocating more funds for the transportation of predominantly-wealthy tourists. While the safety of the poor is threatened by the impact of organized crime on extra-urban transport systems, the State has managed to fund a safe, efficient, “first class” transportation system for tourists. Guatemala, as a member of the UN, is bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to treat all people as “equal in dignity and rights.” Subsidizing extra-urban transport would help Guatemala comply with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, because safe, efficient transportation is vital for economic development and tackling poverty.