Colour and cautious hope on a ‘bling bling’ bus journey through Guatemala

Colour and cautious hope on a ‘bling bling’ bus journey through Guatemala
The country’s remodelled US school buses showcase both its passion and problems
The chicken buses come barrelling past, a flash of colours accompanied by blaring horns and exhaust pipes. In a former life, these extraordinary-looking vehicles were sprayed yellow and tasked with ferrying children to and from school in the US. Stand on almost any roadside in Guatemala and you’ll see their Central American reincarnation. They roar preposterously around bends beneath volcanoes and belch black smoke into narrow, dusty town centres, vying to attract passengers. The buses are privately run, so owners get to choose the style of their fleets. The more ostentatious the better. Chrome is popular, so are stars, wings, curved lines and bright clusters of lights. Their engines are modified for a dangerous extra oomph. Yet their names are calmer, often tending towards the saintly or abstract: Saint Thomas, Little Princess, The Beautiful Foreigner, Fortune, Hope. Hope is something Guatemalans have lacked recently. Though the country has the largest economy in Central America, it is also one of the most unequal. Indigenous Guatemalans, who make up almost half the population, are twice as likely to be affected by poverty. Each year thousands of people attempt to immigrate to the US. A recent authoritarian slide has raised the stakes further in an election year but, for most, change is a distant prospect. When the first round of presidential elections took place last month, familiar names featured prominently among the more than 20 candidates. They included Sandra Torres, a former first lady, and Zury Ríos, the daughter of the country’s former dictator. Throughout Guatemala’s turbulent recent history its chicken buses, known as las camionetas (vans) or las burras (donkeys) in Spanish, have been a fixture of everyday life. (The tourists’ name “chicken bus” is thought to have come about because live poultry used to commonly be wedged in the luggage racks.) The main form of transport between and within cities, the vehicles reflect some of the country’s knottier problems, including crime and inequality. Extortionists routinely demand bus drivers pay up to pass through their territory; workers who commute into the capital Guatemala City because they can’t afford to live there face long traffic jams on top of their already long hours. Travelling by bus, therefore, offers a way to trace the contours of the country at a crucial moment. The first stop on my journey is a wood-panelled office in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, thousands of miles away from Guatemala City. Adam Thoma sits at the desk from which he runs 422 Sales, an auction house started by his father in the early 1980s. Before bus-buying moved online, the company was the leading seller of second-hand school buses in the US. Thoma, a laid-back 41-year-old with a pearly smile, speaks fondly about the glory years of the family business during our video call. Their most successful day was when they offloaded 764 buses at one auction in August 2000. Back then, in-person sales were the only way to secure one. Buyers who didn’t live in the US had to travel up from Mexico and Central America, which was, and still is, by far 422’s largest market. “Guatemalans can buy a decent used vehicle at a reduced rate and still operate it for 10 or 20 years,” Thoma says. Perhaps longer, if you follow the rule one client shared with him: “If the bus starts in the morning and has brakes working on one wheel, we’ll use it.” Occasionally, customers send him photographs of their reconstructed buses. Taking a framed picture off the wall, Thoma singles out a flamboyant green and red vehicle from Guatemala. “They definitely do the best work down there,” he says. A week later, I set off on a sunny June morning from Guatemala City to meet Juan Estrada, a loyal 422 customer who lives in Escuintla, a city not far from the Pacific coast. At the main bus station in Villa Nueva, part of the capital’s metropolitan sprawl, burras of all colours judder to a halt. Mine turns out to be a rather plain green-and-white model, but its interior is relatively plush, with new high-backed green seats that are surprisingly comfortable. There are a dozen passengers on board, as we cruise past scores of political posters and descend gently towards the sea, past maize fields below the steep sides of a volcano. An hour later, I’m in Escuintla, where I find Estrada’s bus garage down a cobbled side street. Estrada, 49, is wearing a green grease-stained polo shirt. He leads me to a messy office strewn with equipment, where pride of place is given to a picture of Jerusalem’s skyline, a common possession for Guatemalan evangelicals. As we begin talking buses, Estrada becomes animated. He started driving buses at 18, he says, even though he didn’t have a licence. Not long after, Estrada travelled to his first bus auction in the US and returned behind the wheel of his boss’s new purchase. Despite running his own company now, he frequently drives buses back from the US down through Mexico, a trip in the thousands of miles. “All the journeys are an adventure. Each one has its own story.”
Estrada promised himself that he wouldn’t travel to the US this year, either to add to his collection of nine local buses or to buy for his resale business. But he recently returned from his third trip in less than six months. He jokes that he just can’t shake his “vice” even though, with supply much lower than in the past, second-hand bus prices have soared (a 10-year-old bus costs between $5,000 and $15,000, says 422’s Thoma). US school districts cling on to vehicles for longer, the effect of the 2008 financial crash and then the pandemic. They used to be sold after 10 years, but now it is closer to 20. Yet though Estrada’s margins are tighter, he is following his passion. “The majority of owners have been born and brought up with buses. We carry this in our blood. We love them,” he says. Just as he inherited his father’s company, he wants his 11-year-old son to take over one day. “It falls from generation to generation.” The same is true for the bus painters and mechanics of Ciudad Vieja, 30 miles north, where I head next, whizzing through lush landscapes on another camioneta. Although only a small town, its 16 burra workshops make it the chicken bus revamp capital of Guatemala. At Horacio’s, the oldest of them, I talk to Henry González, whose grandfather started a vehicle repair shop nearby more than 70 years ago. In the dim light of the workshop, González explains the story of Guatemalan camioneta know­how. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, the US bus manufacturer Blue Bird had a factory in the country, which drove local interest and technical knowledge, he says. Over time, the burras’ designs — González calls it their “bling bling” — grew more elaborate. “Sometimes they put lights on them, televisions inside. They look like a disco,” he says, somewhat disapprovingly. His words are vindicated the following evening when the strangest and most extravagant camioneta I’ve seen bumps its way along the cobbles of Antigua, a pretty colonial town heaving with tourists. Its front is a beacon of red light and its body pulses blue, like some improbable deep-sea creature. Over the road from Horacio’s is the San Jorge workshop, another family-run affair. Giovanni Rodríguez, a muscular, tattooed 36-year-old, whose jet black hair is gelled upright, shows me his handiwork. He is in the process of painting a bus, predominantly white and blue. On the upper back corner, the initials of its owner curl satisfyingly. Much of the bus is still coated in masking tape and newspaper — mainly from the sports section and the Guatemalan equivalent of page-three pin-ups — to protect it from stray paint. When it is finished, the name La Humilde (The Humble One) will billow beneath its windows in red and yellow. As we fight to be heard over the noise of a metal grinder that’s remodelling a bus bound for El Salvador, conversation turns from aesthetics to an ugly but endemic problem in Guatemala: extortion. “It’s always existed,” sighs Rodríguez, before confiding that La Humilde’s owner has to pay what the gangs euphemistically refer to as renta (rent). If he refused, his drivers would probably be killed. For more than a decade, the Association of Widows of Public Transport Drivers in Guatemala City has helped those affected by the killings, offering work courses for bereaved women and arranging school support for their children. Lilian Maribel Pérez decided to set up the organisation after a spike in homicides in the late 2000s — almost 200 bus and taxi drivers were shot dead in 2009, she says. The number of deaths is still high; more than 500 bus drivers were killed in acts of violence between 2010 and August 2022, according to the Guatemalan newspaper La Prensa Libre.

En route to Pérez’s home, which doubles as her office, I board a 28-year-old bus driven by Jimmy Gómez. He fills up at a petrol station near the historic centre of Guatemala City. Previously a long-haul lorry driver, Gómez only started his job two weeks ago, but he understands the risks. “Eight drivers were killed on my route in 2022,” he says matter-of-factly, as we arrive at the bus station and he edges us into a parking space. Asked if he fears for his safety, Gómez offers a come-what-may response: “I have God in my heart.” The widows’ association is near a busy ring road. Pérez shuts the window grills to reduce the noise. She tells me bluntly she has little time for the country’s politicians, who haven’t given her organisation any support. “Unfortunately, our authorities have always been indifferent to violence. There’s never been a government that could really combat the criminality that there is in Guatemala,” she says. Going to the police is often not an option, she says, citing corruption. Pérez knows of only a handful of murderers who have been convicted in the past decade for killing bus drivers. “You feel very impotent because you can’t do anything. There is nowhere you can demand justice.” Guatemala also suffers from severe financial inequality. A small number of families hold enormous influence, while one in two children is malnourished and decently paid work is scarce. Many young girls are driven to leave homes in the provinces and move to the capital to seek jobs cleaning, ironing and cooking in the houses of the affluent. Some 300,000 people perform this role across the country, according to Centracap, an organisation that offers them help and training and which battles to win them rights in law. Early one Friday, I arrive at Bethsi López’s home on the outskirts of the capital to accompany her to work. The 4.45am start is necessary because López, who looks younger than her 34 years, is keen to beat the traffic. Almost two decades after arriving as a 17-year-old in Guatemala City, the single mother of two still works six days a week for wealthy families. The demands of the job are tough enough without the length of her bus commute, which can take up to six hours return. She limps because of problems with the tendons in her feet. We reach the bottom of a precipitous hill, cross a footbridge and board a brightly lit camioneta. It’s a bit of a squeeze, but we find a seat and López starts to recount the challenges and the loneliness of her work, for which she gets paid between £9 and £15 a day. “It’s a solitary life,” she says, explaining that she barely talks to anyone except her two daughters. We discuss the discrimination workers face. Racial abuse towards the indigenous women who make up most of her sector’s workforce is particularly prevalent, López says. Some families abuse their powers in other ways too. An hour and a half after our bus sets off, we near the leafy neighbourhood where she works, on a hill east of the city. It is only a little more than 20km from her home, but it might as well be another world. The place is quiet, the air is fresh and large condominiums are everywhere. Joggers pad along its quiet roads as López shuffles towards the entrance to her boss’s gated community to work. Guatemalans desperate for a country with more equality and less corruption cheered during the “Guatemalan Spring” of 2015, when president Otto Pérez Molina and vice-president Roxana Baldetti were booted from power and imprisoned for crimes committed in office. But under the next two leaders, democracy went further into retreat. Few I met on my travels realistically thought this slide would be halted by the presidential elections. Nevertheless, on the eve of the vote, thousands left Guatemala City for their family homes in other towns to exercise their democratic right. Accompanying some of them, I set out for Nebaj by bus. The town is in the western region of Quiché, a place ringed by idyllic cloud forests but haunted by a brutal past. It is the home of the Ixil people, against whom the army unleashed waves of massacres during the civil war that started in 1960 and lasted until the mid-1990s. Asked if he fears for his safety, bus driver Jimmy Gómez offers a come-what-may response: ‘I have God in my heart’
My journey takes me through Los Encuentros, a camioneta crossroads just north of Lake Atitlán, where I wait to change buses. On an overcast Saturday afternoon, the tinkling bell of an ice-cream salesman seems hopeful. But the burra ayudantes — boys and men who tout their buses over competitors’ and tie luggage on the roof rack while their camioneta zips along the road — have more luck. Boarding a stylish red, white and black bus, I squash beside two other adults on a bench designed for two US children. As we race into the hills to Nebaj, the music on board is typically loud and upbeat. The following morning, large queues form at the outdoor polling station beside Nebaj’s main square, where Gabriel de Paz is expecting me. Like most Mayan men in the town of his generation, the 62-year-old farmer is dressed in local indigenous attire: a smart red and black jacket and a straw hat. As we move to the quiet of a nearby building, de Paz tells me how his youth was violently uprooted by war. When the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, known as the EGP, took up positions in the surrounding hills, the state military made its presence known and razed dozens of local villages, in a cruel bid to cut off potential support for the insurgents. Its actions were particularly grisly under the brief dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt, who ruled for 17 months in 1982 and 1983. De Paz’s family escaped into the mountains, often staying in hiding for months at a stretch. He still has nightmares in which soldiers pursue him, destroy his animals and send in planes. Like many others, he cannot afford the psychological support he needs. Added to this untreated trauma, de Paz was worried: that Zury Ríos, whose father’s troops killed thousands of Ixil people, could become the next Guatemalan president. Ríos had campaigned in the region and her party’s mayoral candidates were expected to do well in parts of Quiché. To de Paz, the possibility that Ríos could be elected, after decades of denying her father’s crimes, was hard to fathom. Yet many are unaware of their history, he says. After our discussion, we walk to the cemetery, where de Paz points to the final resting place of victims whose remains were only discovered 10 years ago. “Some people say there wasn’t genocide. But how can they deny it? When there are graves here,” he says. As I turn the light out that evening, a child in the street beside my hotel shouts with high-pitched delight that other candidates are beating Ríos. The scale of her defeat is revealed the next morning as plummeting support consigns Ríos to sixth place in the presidential race. Though to de Paz’s sadness, Ríos’s party’s mayoral candidates are elected in the nearby municipalities of Cotzal and Chajul. But there’s reason for optimism. Bernardo Arévalo, a rare anti-corruption figure, claimed a surprise second place in the presidential vote, thanks in part to the fact that more Guatemalans chose “voto nulo” than voted for any other single candidate. The political elites or pollsters had not expected it, and hope is in the air. A 23-year-old student in Nebaj tells me the country “had finally started to open its eyes”. Though Arévalo is due to take part in second-round elections in August, the election results were disputed and called before the courts. As one Guatemalan friend texts me, even if there is a fresh start, “It will take a lot to clean the shop when it has been dirty for such a long time.” I re-read her message, which is otherwise full of cautious hope, on my chicken bus home, as cheerful Mexican ballads blast from the speakers. For a brief moment, Guatemala’s political outlook coincides with the radiant colours of the country’s camionetas.

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