Kendall Taggart/California Watch Old American school buses at Alejandro Mejia's shop near Antigua, Guatemala, get custom paint jobs.
A yellow school bus sits gutted, propped up on wooden blocks at a shop in Guatemala, more than a thousand miles from its former life. Black spray paint barely obscures the name of the school district it used to serve.
It is one of several aging buses that have rolled in from across the United States to the shop on the outskirts of Antigua. The shop’s owner, Alejandro Mejia, makes a living giving the old American school buses a makeover and a new start as mass transportation.
To prepare the buses to join Guatemala's transit system, Mejia chops off several feet from the back so they’re lighter and more nimble on the country’s steep terrain and raises their suspension so they have more clearance on the uneven streets. Then he does away with the federally mandated school-bus yellow and gives them a paint job – a range of bright green, red and blue – depending on the new owner’s taste. After four or five weeks, his work is complete, and he puts on the finishing touch: a new name – Esmeralda, Evelyn or Primorosa, perhaps.
There's no requirement for how the buses are painted. "Each owner has his own style," Mejia said.
Thousands of old American school buses cross the southern border each year and are converted into camionetas – or "chicken buses," as they’re called by foreigners, named for the tightly packed quarters and occasional feathered traveler.
In California, private companies operate a little more than a third of the 24,337 schools buses used to transport students. No state agency tracks what happens to school district-owned buses that are no longer used to transport students.
Danny Cozort, a fleet sales manager at First Student Inc., a company based in Ohio that contracts with about 90 public education agencies in California and others nationwide, estimates his company sold 3,000 buses last year alone. Most of those were exported to Mexico, Guatemala and other countries in Central America.
Other buses will find a domestic use, serving local churches or being converted into mobile homes. The sales price can range greatly, from $3,000 to $10,000 for buses in better condition, Cozort said.
Mejia charges the equivalent of $300 to $440 to adapt the school buses, a process that takes four to six weeks. The new owner in Guatemala might spend an additional $1,000 on the paint job alone. The paint is both a point of pride for the owner and required by law to help differentiate the bus companies, Mejia said.
Kendall Taggart/California Watch Buses line up near the terminal in Antigua, Guatemala.
Unlike some states, California doesn’t require school districts to retire buses after a set number of years. Rather, every bus must be certified by the California Highway Patrol every 13 months to ensure that it's safe to operate.
“We’ve got buses from the '80s still running,” said Anna Borges, supervisor for the state Office of School Transportation.
New buses have important safety features, such as additional emergency exits mandated by a 1990 federal law. But the law applies only to buses manufactured after that date, and the state doesn't require districts to retrofit older buses to meet the new standards.
Once buses make it to Guatemala, they’ll be used for another five to 10 years, said Mario Muralles, who owns two buses in Antigua.
In California, buses are required to meet emissions standards. The Environmental Protection Agency reports [PDF] that pre-1990 buses can emit up to six times more pollution than newer models. In 2008, the state instituted new environmental standards [PDF] that will force some buses off the road by 2014 if they don’t meet the requirements.
Some districts, like the Fresno Unified and Long Beach Unified school districts, have received grants to help replace old buses. Those buses shouldn’t wind up in Mexico and Central America, though; the grants required districts to demolish them.
Hundreds of buses pass through the terminal in Antigua each day, providing the primary means of transportation for many Guatemalans. They race down the highways, barely stopping to allow passengers to hop on and crowd into a bus that can be standing room only.
A new public transportation system was unveiled in Guatemala City a few years ago, but with a large supply of discarded buses from the United States, it's unlikely camionetas will disappear anytime soon.