Axel Danilo Ramirez Espinoza, known as “El Smiley” and the reputed leader of the Mara 18 gang

Axel Danilo Ramirez Espinoza, known as “El Smiley” and the reputed leader of the Mara 18 gang, was arrested after a gunfight that left another suspected criminal dead, deputy police director Rember Larios said.The 22-year-old Ramirez was identified publicly last month by Interior Minister Salvador Gandara as the person behind this year’s wave of killings of bus drivers who resisted the extortion.Eighty-five drivers were murdered last year, more than double the 37 slain in 2007, according to police statistics, while the 2009 toll is already nearing 100, including drivers, drivers’ assistants, passengers, mechanics and even a government inspector.
More than 1 million people in greater Guatemala City depend on buses to get around.The unidentified gang member killed in the shootout with police was one of Ramirez’s bodyguards, Larios said.Police are looking for three other suspects who managed to get away.Officers found two automatic pistols, ammunition, two grenades, drugs and “documentary evidence” linking the gang leader to the extortion racket, Larios said.Ramirez’s arrest was “a small achievement” by the security forces,” Interior Minister Gandara said, adding that the suspect’s capture was made possible by intelligence work and the cooperation of citizens.The gang leader, for his part, said he had nothing to do with the extortion rackets and killings of drivers, but he acknowledged involvement in the deaths of several members of the rival Mara Salvatrucha gang.Ramirez was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the August 2005 slayings of two underage Salvatrucha members, but he was released last December for good behavior.Since then, Ramirez managed to regain the leadership of the Mara 18 in the western section of the capital, overseeing extortion rackets and ordering the killings of drivers.Earlier this month, the government said it planned to spend about $35 million in 2009-2011 to install a new payment system on Guatemala’s public buses that officials hope will prevent robberies and extortion of drivers.Under the new system, riders will no longer pay their fares in cash, instead purchasing cards that can be used to travel on the buses.The new system, which will require that the nearly 3,000 buses operating in the capital be equipped with machines to read the cards, is expected to start operating in six months.Street gangs are blamed for much of the violence plaguing this Central American nation.
The 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, kidnapping and people smuggling.

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