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Woman decapitated as Guatemalan gangs hit back after extortion crackdown

The brutal killing of a young woman in Guatemala City has been linked to criminal gangs seeking to warn the government against curbing illegal transport rackets, according to the authorities in the central American country.

The victim's head was discovered inside a phone booth in the notorious Zone 18 area of the Guatemalan capital's Colombia district over the weekend, less than a week after President Alvaro Colom unveiled extensions to the new Transurbano bus network in the same neighbourhood.

The grim discovery revealed evidence of prolonged torture, according to Guatemalan police who believe the woman was aged between 18 and 20. According to the Spero news website, authorities found the rest of the victim's remains separately, accompanied by a note which read: "The truth is that if Transurbano does not co-operate, this is what is going to happen to the owners and partners; I have a lot of information and I know where they live."

For more than a decade, gangs have preyed on Guatemala's only public transport system, creating a lucrative extortion racket by demanding protection "tax" from the owners, drivers and passengers of buses travelling through gang-controlled neighbourhoods. If the "tax" is not paid, the consequences are often bloody. More than 600 bus drivers have been killed in disputes with gang members since 2006, with 93 drivers slain in the first six months of last year alone.

In an attempt to increase safety levels, the government introduced Transurbano buses on a handful of trial routes in July last year. Featuring surveillance cameras, GPS devices and panic buttons, the buses are also manned by two armed guards. But it is the fact that passengers can only board using prepaid fare cards – not cash – which has hit gangs the hardest.

So far, the Transurbano system appears to have been a success. More than 460,000 city residents signed up for prepaid cards before trials started last year, and only three minor incidents have been reported on the routes since they were first introduced, according to Guatemala's Interior Minister, Carlos Menocal, in a statement last week.

However, as the success prompted the government to extend Transurbano lines across Guatemala City, it may also trigger violence aimed at halting this extension. In addition to the young woman's murder, a drive-by shooting targeting the offices of the private security firm which provides bus guards also resulted in three deaths last week.