El Salvador bus drivers go on strike as gang violence surges

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - El Salvador’s bus drivers went on strike on Monday, demanding better security in the wake of escalating gang attacks and leaving thousands of commuters stranded on the streets of the Central American capital.

Five bus drivers and one other transport worker were found dead Monday morning, and two buses were torched over the weekend by suspected gang members seeking extortions. The director of the National Civil Police confirmed the deaths.

Murders in the country jumped 50 percent to 2,192 in the first five months of the year, compared with the same period last year, with crimes largely blamed on fighting between two rival groups, Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18 gang.

From Monday morning, people on the streets of San Salvador desperately tried to hop on trucks or other alternatives to get to work or school, or trudged long distances by foot.

Gangs stepped up violence over the weekend to pressure the government of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren to negotiate with them to ease a crackdown on their operations and secure less harsh conditions for imprisoned members, officials said.

One suspect threw a grenade into the parking lot of one of San Salvador’s top hotels on Saturday night, prosecutors said.

The government has so far rejected dialogue with the gangs, whose turf wars have helped make El Salvador one of the most violent countries in the Americas.

The surge in violence since 2014, after a 2012 truce between the two groups crumbled, has taken the lives of more than 30 police officers and 11 soldiers.

Seven soldiers were detained after staging a small demonstration to demand bonuses for the risky job of fighting the gangs, defense minister David Munguia said on Monday.

Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Anna Yukhananov; Editing by Ken Wills