If a “killer tomato” and a “chicken bus” collide, would it result in a chicken-tomato stew? These are names for the colorful buses of Guatemala. They careen around mountains in the countryside and through crowded streets in the cities. But these missiles of mayhem start their lives as mild mannered school buses in the United States or Canada.
After years of transporting students they may be used as spare buses until maintenance costs dictate they be sold. At that point a potential owner buys the bus at a bargain price with a certified check, money order or cash. He arranges for a Guatemalan driver to go north to Canada or the U.S. and get his prize. The driver’s pay is $1000, less expenses for lodging, food and gas during the two-week trip. He joins the drivers of thousands of other used cars, trucks and buses taken down the PanAmerican Highway from Brownsville, Texas, through Mexico to Guatemala and points south.
The new owner of a bus may pay from $5,000 to $10,000 to have the bus modified and painted. If it will be used on mountainous roads, it’s cut shorter, so as not to overturn on sharp curves. Seats that previously sat up to 78 students, are placed closer together with less padding to accommodate a maximum number of paying occupants. Manual transmissions replace automatic ones for greater control and better gas mileage. While the interior and the engine are being modified, the outside is painted with colorful, vibrant designs or tomato red. The bus is given a name that reflects it’s new personality. A bus route is applied for and a tax paid for the first year of operation.
Two men partner in operating a bus: the driver, who hopefully has a driver’s license, and a helper who shouts out destinations, collects fares, sweeps passengers on and off and organizes luggage, livestock and produce inside and on the roof, often while the bus is in motion.
The bus system in Guatemala is difficult to decipher; there may not be a system. Scores of independent companies serve most places anyone wants to go. There is an extensive network going to every town, village and tourist destination, but it is complex and decentralized with no plan as to where the bus terminals are located Riders can’t predict where they’ll be let off or how safe an area will be.
Compared with other modes of transportation, buses are inexpensive and therefore, crowded. The red city buses are temptingly cheap at 25 cents a ride, especially if you have to cross town. In Guatemala many are painted a bright tomato red color and zoom around at high speeds. They stop every few blocks along city streets to pick up riders and have an armed guard on board to prevent robberies. The buses careen wildly on the streets of the capitol city Multicolored chicken buses, often transporting live animals, roam urban and rural roads. Both kinds of busses are frequently involved in accidents, though more assaults take place on the red buses.
“Killer tomato” buses earned their reputation because they are easy targets of extortion and violence by street gangs, organized crime and drug cartels. so they are driven by aggressive operators at high speeds. There is no authorized public transportation system in many cities so the drivers often rent from a bus owner and receive subsidies from the government when they help provide transportation. This money and the cash from passengers makes them vulnerable to being robbed. Once extortion money is paid, the criminals often up the ante until it no longer pays to run the bus.
The cost of hiring armed security guards makes a profit even less likely and doesn’t always discourage thefts. Justice has historically been weak to the point that the homicide rate in Guatemala is more than 48 per 100,000 inhabitants. (In Mexico it is 14; in the U.S. 5, per 2009 statistics.) In 2010, 130 bus drivers and 53 bus helpers were murdered, according to El Periódico, the Guatemalan daily paper.
On chicken buses there is little to fear except a bruised tailbone from bouncing over speed bumps at the entrance to each village. Occasionally, a zealot gets on for a few miles to loudly preach his religious dogma to the captive audience imprisoned like sardines in a can. He is soon replaced by Indian women dressed in blouses, skirts and head coverings of dizzying Mayan designs transporting their poultry and vegetables to and from the market.
How many people can fit into a chicken bus? Always one more. And, when there is a collision, it is a colorful stew.
Evelyn LaTorre is a memoir writer living in Fremont, CA.