Guadalajara, Mexico - With almost half the population living in poverty, public buses are the only viable means of transport for many Mexicans. But serious concerns have arisen over the safety, quality and cost of public transport in Guadalajara, Mexico's second biggest city, where bus drivers complain of exploitation and the number of bus-related deaths is alarmingly high.
Twenty-five people were killed in accidents involving public transport in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco state, from January through May 2014.
There are no national records, but the Jalisco Attorney General's Office says that from 2007 to 2013 there were 317 fatalities involving public transport in Guadalajara alone. Of the 224 bus drivers charged with causing these deaths, 82 were convicted.
"It's a very grave problem," Oscar Mora Esquivias, legal director of public transport in Jalisco, told Al Jazeera. "Public transport was not necessarily responsible" for every fatality, Mora stressed, but he admitted that most of Guadalajara's 5,300 buses are dated and do not meet international standards.
A broken system
Public transport in Mexico is not run directly by the state; instead the government grants concessions to private companies that provide buses and drivers. The Jalisco government does not know how many companies have concessions in the state because the last administration left no digital records, Mora said.
Guadalajara's chaotic public transport system has suffered from decades of insufficient investment and regulation, Jesus Soto Morfin of civic watchdog group Ciudad Para Todos (City For Everyone) told Al Jazeera. There are no timetables and few route maps in Guadalajara; overcrowding is common and only 10 percent of buses are required to be accessible for disabled people, Soto said.
Such problems are common across much of Mexico, where taking the bus can be an intensely uncomfortable affair. Upscale buses with airconditioning and televisions are available for long-haul journeys, but inner-city travel typically involves constant rattling and stifling heat, with the occasional onboard busker for entertainment.
Drivers often adorn their vehicles with images of Mexico's sacred Virgin of Guadalupe, but even her watchful eye provides no protection for lone female riders who risk being molested while pressed between swaths of sweaty passengers. Although most cases go unreported, a 2010 survey by the Jalisco Women's Institute revealed that 20 percent of female public transport users in Guadalajara had been sexually harassed.
Buses can also spell danger for pedestrians, as illustrated by the death of a Guadalajara high-school student on March 7. Having finished classes for the day, 18-year-old Fernanda Vazquez was waiting for the bus with her classmates when onlookers noticed the number 368 speeding towards them.
"The 368 (bus) was racing alongside another bus," said Jorge Gallardo, a roadside vendor who witnessed the incident. Upon seeing students crossing, driver Leopoldo Soberano braked suddenly but slammed into the crowded bus stop, killing Vazquez and injuring 20 others. "Then he reversed with some of the students stuck underneath the bus," Gallardo told Al Jazeera.
Soberano drove off in a bid to escape but was overpowered by a mob of enraged adolescents who smashed the bus windows and dragged him from the vehicle before police arrived to detain him. He was later charged with homicide and injury by gross negligence.
Anger at drivers
Busmen have become unpopular among some Guadalajara residents due to the regular occurrence of such incidents. In 2012 the situation grew so bad that eight drivers were slain in two waves of vigilante killings across the city.
Placards left by the crime scenes attributed the murders to the "Anonymous Avengers" and warned that two drivers would die for every citizen killed by public transport. Police later arrested two local gang members who admitted to shooting drivers at random after a relative was fatally hit by a bus.
"We feel a sense of latent danger because anyone could be an avenger," former bus driver Jose Sanchez Rincon told Al Jazeera. Sanchez believes that harsh labour conditions are the root cause of the problem; not the busmen, who he feels are unfairly vilified. "We admit that service is bad and inefficient, but we want people to know that behind every driver is a history of exploitation," he added.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, drivers from Guadalajara's 176 and 619 bus routes told Al Jazeera they work an average of 12 hours a day - sometimes as many as 19 hours - seven days a week, in return for 18 to 20 percent of ticket sales, which typically equates to $25 to $30 per day.
The drivers said they receive no lunch hour, sick pay or paid vacation time; most have no social security and many must personally cover fuel, insurance, vehicle rental fees, repairs and the vast majority of any revenue lost in robberies. As a result of these conditions, many busmen "suffer from stress, fatigue and psychological disorders", Soto told Al Jazeera.
Priced at six Mexican pesos ($0.45), a bus ticket in Guadalajara may seem easily affordable, but when taken as a proportion of the local minimum wage, it is actually more expensive than in London, New York or Toronto.
We admit that service is bad and inefficient, but we want people to know that behind every driver is a history of exploitation.
In response to Vazquez's death, the Jalisco government reversed a recent fare hike and froze prices until operating companies comply with new transport regulations by providing drivers with uniforms and certified training programmes, and fitting all buses with security cameras and electronic speed control.
In a press conference on May 29, Juan Villarreal Salazar, who leads an alliance of bus companies in Jalisco - but rejected repeated interview requests by Al Jazeera - said several operators now comply with these norms, although the cost of making these improvements has left them on the brink of bankruptcy. The bus companies are already pushing for another 17 percent rise in fares and Mora refused to rule out such a hike.
Soto said that public transport in the state is controlled by a "mafia" of politicians and businessmen. When the bus companies and their affiliated unions want to raise fares they effectively blackmail the government by paralysing the city centre with strikes, he explained.
"The unions offer workers absolutely no protection," but, in breach of Mexican law, every driver is forced to join the unions and pay inscription fees upon starting work, the route 176 driver told Al Jazeera. "The bosses decide everything. If they announce a strike then we have to take part but if we want to strike for labour benefits they fire us," added the route 619 driver. His employer, Sistecozome, refused to comment when contacted by Al Jazeera.
Sanchez, who says he was fired by the same company for demanding improved working conditions, believes accidents are a "product of the system" that could be reduced if drivers received fixed wages. Commission-based wages create pressure and competition, he explained, with drivers often racing to pick up passengers, as occurred when Vazquez was killed.
Mora told Al Jazeera that the bus companies recently agreed to introduce fixed wages and an eight-hour day by the end of the year. However, both Sanchez and the route 619 driver expressed fears the new wages will be structured in a way that sees busmen earn even less.