While at work, my co-oworker asked “You don’t ride the BUS, do you?” “Not today” I responded. “WELL, you missed all the craziness this morning. Half the buses weren’t running because they didn’t have their ‘carnet’ [registration] today.”
For the first time in something like 10 years El Salvador is doing a mass registration renewal and everyone has to get their vehicles re-registered. They are also starting something new for bus drivers, a special motorist ID. In order to get this ID, the bus drivers have to sign papers saying they agree to commit to pay any fines they have for traffic violations like speeding, putting themselves on a payment plan. Many bus drivers in El Salvador have accrued hundreds upon hundreds of dollars worth of these fines (“esquelas”), so they have not gone to get their motorist card, or ‘carné’.
So all day today, buses all over El Salvador were out of service. Would-be passengers of buses were taking pick-ups ad various trucks, vans, cabs, what have you to make it to work while people who run the buses were protesting the ‘injustice.’
Video footage on channel 33 news showed a group of bus drivers and fare collectors making a stink in the street, blockading it with large rocks and anything they could. They stopped a bus in the middle of the demonstration, and when it could go no further, everyone piled out. Right after, the fare collector of the forcibly stopped bus was shown on the video yelling at the demonstrators, saying “Why don’t you have your carné?”
THANK YOU, Mr. Fare collector, for exposing them for who they are. If you don’t pay your fines, (and in this case, they get a break to pay them over time) why should you even be driving?
well, apparently this phenomenon is quite common, and 87% of bus drivers in the metropolitan area do not have their motorist card yet, according to this article on La Prensa Grafica.
So, more disorder and always disorder with the buses here in El Salvador. System Of A Down – Disorder
On Monday, February 21, shortly after 5:00am, on the highway that runs from Santa Ana to San Salvador, El Salvador, a horrible accident took place, which started with a tractor trailer and a car, and resulted in two buses crashing. 15 people have died as a result of Monday’s accident, 9 declared dead shortly after the accident with the death toll rising [20 are now dead as of Feb 28, 2011]. 80-100 remain injured, several with serious injuries in the ICU.
Articles on the two accidents below. Use Babelfish on yahoo or Google translate to read in English.
El Mundo article covering the Feb 21 bus accident
More detailed but graphic El Mundo article with witness reports covering Feb 21 accident. I translated two vivid parts, as online translators do not do much justice:
I don’t know how many dead I counted. Seven, eight, I don’t know. But, inside the bus, among the twisted metal it looked like more bodies were trapped. One could easily see the leg of a woman who died there. They were macabre scenes. Several bodies were dismembered. Almost all the dead looked like textile workers that traveled early to get to their jobs.
Testimony from one of the victim’s on the bus:
I fainted from the impact, he told me. When I asked him about the cause of the accident, he told me: ‘The bus was going so fast that the driver couldn’t even use the breaks. When he saw the other bus crossed in the road, he wanted to avoid it but we stopped against the tree.
Article on La Prensa Grafica regarding the Feb 23 bus accident
Initial reports tried to blame either the car or the tractor trailer, but testimony that came later from survivors of the horrendous crash revealed that both bus drivers were driving at high speed, and “fighting over the road and fighting over passengers.”
I’m going to explain what this means because for those of us who grew up with a transit system in a developed country, this does not make sense.
The bus system in El Salvador is not run or owned by any government or quasi-government agencies. It is a “collective transport system” with many different owners of various bus routes, manned by bus drivers and fare collectors who basically have the run of the roads. The route fleets consist primarily of old school buses, most from the United States, and older transit buses, and numerous micro-buses which resemble the hippie volkswagon buses in size and shape.
Fares are all collected in CASH, by hand, which is the root of many problems which make the bus system dangerous for drivers and fare collectors, and for passengers. Gang members routinely demand “rent” from buses, that covers the first endangered group. The second group is constantly in peril because the cash system means every passenger is another coin or “cha-ching” on the register. Bus drivers and fare collectors, if they are the slightest bit dishonest, are “garnishing profits” for every “head” they can get on their bus.
Thus, it creates a “fighting for the road and passengers” problem, or “Peleando por Via” as it is called in Spanish. Imagine a group of passengers waiting just around the bend for a bus. Two buses are approaching and can see the passengers. Both buses, even if on the same route, want to be “first to pick up the passengers” and get the money first.
So the bus drivers play a game and continuously pass one another, to be “first” to get them. Sometimes it reaches the point where two buses can be seen driving in both lanes of a two-way road, one going against traffic, trying to pass the first bus, and the other with traffic, speeding up to avoid getting passed.
Passengers are treated like animals instead of humans, and the result is what we saw on Monday.
!Newsflash! A second major accident just happened, outside of Santa Tecla on the highway near the “Los Churros” water park. There, witnesses are saying the same “Peleando por Via” phenomenon occurred, and one of the buses breaks failed. 3 people have died so far, as of 9:30pm local time in El Salvador, one of which was a 10 year old boy.
I have driven on that highway near Los Churros with my husband, and it is a winding section of road with many twists and turns, which my husband always refers to as “dangerous” when we pass through there. Not the place to be jockeying for position as the “Alpha Bus”.
One would think after Monday’s horrific accident that bus drivers would calm down at least for a few days, but between yesterday and today 3 bus accidents happened, this serious one near los Churros where as of this hour, 3 died, and another two bus accidents between yesterday in San Miguel and today in Chalatenango which left a total of 22 injured. Complete barbarism on the part of the bus drivers in all of the above, some even ran away from the scene of the accidents.
Besides being a police officer, which we know is treacherous here. You will probably guess someone who works in high altitudes or high risk construction or engineering job, or something of the like.
Drumroll please…..and the winner of the most dangerous job in El Salvador is: Bus Driver!!
This is one of the riskiest professions in this country. At least once a week, if not 3 or more times, we see the image of yet another torched bus on the evening news. Bus drivers and ‘cobradores’ (fare collectors) are expected to pay rent demanded by gangs, which can range from 10 to 15 dollars a day, or a couple grand or more per month, depending on the route. When the driver cannot or wont pay rent, its “flames” to the vehicle, often accompanied by execution. Passengers are marched off the bus, and the gang quickly ignites its latest example of what happens when you fail to pay rent.
Buses also serve as a fine source of theft income for gangs, outside of extorting the driver. My husband was robbed on a bus, along with several other victims in August of 2009, in front of the infamous Tiendona market on his way back from English class. He was sad to have lost his wedding ring, but relieved to get away with his finger intact, as it was a struggle to remove the ring. Fortunately, the marero (gang member) helped him get it off by prying it off my husbands finger with his teeth. Needless to say, I have avoided buses in most of the city since arriving to live here.
Market vendors and small business proprietors experience extortion similar to that of bus drivers, and are often victims of violence when dues are not paid.
An additional factor in life-risking occupation is often brought on by the bus drivers themselves. A reckless “I own the road” attitude many of them have causes accidents left and right. As they race along a high speed chase to collect as many fares as possible (have to cover the ‘rent’ and then some) they endanger their life and everyone else’s.
March 28, 2010 – original diary entry, and updated.
On Day two of the gang-enforced “Paro” my friend Chata and I braved a trip from Los Planes de Renderos, where we live, into the city to check out the market and major bus stops. We saw NO buses while driving down the mountain. We did see, however, numerous pick-ups and commercial size trucks hauling people up and out of the city in droves. It was an amazing sight. People were often packed so tight onto the back of pick-up trucks, that the tail end was near dragging on the ground.
Trucks were hauling people everywhere, and no buses in sight.
Once in the city, we drove through part of the market, as police were everywhere, so we felt safe from danger.
The market located near the Parque Libertad (Liberty Park) was deserted except for a few courageous vendors on the main drag on Calle Poniente 4a (4th West Street).
This usually bustling market near empty at 5:30pm
Getting Home via 'TruckBus' during the 'Paro' - 9/2010
Near the market on Avenida España, we saw a bus with a police officer on it for security. This street near the market has several bus stops for different routes in and out of the city. Today people were catching all sorts of “impromptu” collective transport: pickups and trucks as we had seen, along with vans, and taxis braving the gang “suspension” of transport and businesses. We even saw small commercial trucks usually intended for shipping goods opening their rear doors to pack people in.
One particularly happy and touching site were two very large commercial trucks (camionetas) with signs on them advertising a Free ride to the town of Panchimalco. They both had signs with “Pancho, Gratis” and one had banners on it identifying it as a truck sponsored by the Panchimalco town government.
We got to see the Best of El Salvador that day; an entire country banding together and pooling all of their resources to keep driving on, despite the nefarious efforts of the two major gangs throwing their weight around. It’s hard to respect a gang which talks out of both sides of their mouth, on the on hand complaining about the poverty and even making some strong points about minimum wage, and asking the powers that be to find more ways to help people climb out of poverty. Yet on the other hand these are empty wishes, because they come too late;these same gang members extort the poor every day in the markets, streets, and buses, and kill those who don’t pay ‘rent’ to make them an example.
|Free ride to Pancho! It’s on the mayor’s tab.
We stopped at a gas station on the way out of town near San Jacinto. There we saw one final bus filling up for gas, the 4th in 2 hours. I asked if I could take their picture, and if they had had any police protection today; “nope” on the security, but they were happy to let me take their shot. I wished them luck on their way back home, as it was growing dark. On my way back to the car, four military hummers passed by the gas station, intervowen with cars and the new “impromptu bus” traffic. I have to say they were a welcome sight.
This brave driver chose to ignore the gang enforced suspension. I worried for him.
News reports earlier in the day on September 8 reported the following:
- Lists of bus routes and regions where bus service was suspended, much like the lists of school closings are posted during a snowstorm in the U.S.
- Vehicle owners were transporting people by truck, van, etc. and charging as much as $6 a trip, but most were charging a fair price between 25 and 40 cents a trip
- Army vehicles were transporting people to and from specific locations
- Video footage of Bulevar de Ejercito (Army Boulevard) showed only cars and “makeshift” mass transport, and absolutely no buses.
Seeing the streets of El Salvador free of buses was a very weird sight, as bus is “the” mode of transport here; cars are out of reach for the 80% UN-well off in this country.
6:00pm was a supposed “curfew” set by the gangs, according to unfounded rumors, but scared most people into staying indoors. The gang members themselves must were keeping a low profile and out of sight. The country was crawling with both civil and military police. Ironically there was little violence and nearly no homicides during the three-day “Paro”.
Multi-part series blog. See other entries:
Gangs Paralyze El Salvador – Day One – 7 Septiembre, 2010