On the Ground: The story behind Guatemala City’s buses

Wherever I travel I am always curious about transportation systems. In new cities I like to take the bus, subway or try out the bike share. It’s a great way to get to know a city and its people. When applying for the Adelante trip to Guatemala, I pitched a story on transportation issues in Guatemala City. While it might seem like a niche issue, access to transportation is a basic right that allows people to seek education, work opportunities and improve their livelihoods.

One common complaint I hear talking to Guatemala City residents is traffic. It’s is so bad that many people avoid leaving their neighborhood if possible, thus limiting their access to employment or education.

A bus getting refurbished in Guatemala City.

Since we arrived in the capital I have been reporting on the barriers to extending safe, reliable public transportation. On Friday with the help of our fixers, I spoke with two owners of a bus company about the difficulties they face to introduce newer, environmentally friendly buses. At their bus depot in Zona 21, they explained how they import buses from the United States and refurbish them to operate in Guatemala City. The depot was full of freshly painted buses, that can’t circulate on the streets. The cause? Guatemala’s entrenched corruption problems.

Violence against bus drivers and riders is widespread in Guatemala City. Gangs frequently target “red buses,” used American school buses, for extortion because the drivers carry large amounts of cash. Numerous bus drivers have been killed in recent years for not paying extorsion, making a modernized bus system an urgent priority.

Red buses that have been de-comissioned in Guatemala City.

The “Transurbano” system are newer buses that use a pre-paid card, and therefore aren’t targeted by gangs. The buses also don’t pollute as much as the aging red buses. But recent corruption investigations found former president Álvaro Colom and the owners of a bus consortium had mis-used public funds designated for security on Transurbano buses.

This left bus drivers and riders in the lurch. The bus operators I talked to in Zona 21 had imported 32 buses from the US to operate in the Transurbano system. But due to the mis-use of security funds, they haven’t been able to install the pre-pay machines. Many of the buses are still sitting at the depot, unused, and the owners are racking up debt.

Modernizing bus service is a win-win for everyone involved: the bus companies don’t lose money to extortion, riders don’t have to worry about violent attacks, air pollution would be reduced. But entrenched political interests have gotten in the way of this solution.

In our interview at the bus depot, I got a first hand look at the difficulties of improving bus service in Guatemala City. In the meantime, violence on buses continues, and air pollution levels in the capital rise.

By Martha Pskowski, Adelante fellow Guatemala 2018