Transportation in El Salavador is often a source of contention among politicians, bus owners, bus drivers, and the general public. Public transportation is one of the main ways in which people get around in the country, so it´s no surprise that it draws a lot of public attention. Large city buses, former school buses, microbuses (small passenger buses), pick-up trucks, taxis, and even moto-taxis (motorcycle taxis) are all in high demand. More than this, it is an important source of employment for a great number of people.
Beyond the debates that haunt the airwaves on almost a daily basis, usually debates about subsidies for bus companies, there is more to the politics of the transportation industry.
As I have mentionned in previous posts, experiences of violence are commonplace in El Salvador. By experiences of violence I am not only referring to people who have been victims of violence, but rather, the violence that has come to form part of Salvadorans´ everyday life, which includes, exposure to images of violence through the media, conversations about violence in the country, hiring private security, etc.
If you look at the picture closely you will notice that there is a man carrying a machete. The point here is not to make a judgement call to explain why the man is carrying the machete (although we could certainly make certain inferences based on the image: he is not necessarily working in a field given that he is not dressed for that; he is heading into town rather than the countryside where there are farms–I know this because I took the picture). The point that I wish to make, however, is the extent to which violence has been normalized in everyday contexts. It is very common to see people who are armed such as armed private security guards. In this particular case, the man carrying the machete is reacting to the perceived insecurity in the country. Yet at the same time, his method of “protecting himself” also renders people around him more insecure by the mere fact that he is carrying a weapon. This is not simply reactionary; it becomes part of the issue that is contributing to an internal arms race… and we know how effective arms races are!
Another political dynamic evidenced in the transportation industry is at the economic level. On the one hand, the high demand for public transportation has revealed how creative people have become at making money. The economic situation in El Salvador is still quite alarming; economic disparity is still quite prominent, despite what the statistics say about economic growth in the country. As a result, people have equiped their vehicles to carry as many people as possible, adapting technologies to use them for productive means. The picture above shows people heading into the town of Izalco and it is a very common sight throughout the day. The truck is equipped with railings and a shelter to shield people from the hot sun. Sure this is a source of income and it could be argued that small enterprises are growing, but at what cost?
Despite initiatives to increase accessibility to transportation, equipment is often very old and does not seem to adhere to any environmental standards. This is an area that is highly political, given that people just do not have the means to increase the quality of vehicles in order to prevent from emitting so many toxic fumes into the environment. In addition, drivers often face great insecurity in the country. They are often subject to extorsions and their passengers are often targetted by thieves. Many drivers have given up the business of transporting people, but many have also chose to continue risking their lives for the sake of making a living. This is evidenced in the high number of modes of public transportation that continue to operate in the country. Certain drivers who have decided not to continue in the industry have taken up jobs in which they continue to face risks of violence, albeit in different forms.
In short, the transportation industry reveals the way in which power operates in the country. Power in this context is detrimental, yet perceived as something necessary for survival. People who hire private security or arm themselves wish to escape the violence that the economic structure of the country has enabled. It is oppressive because people are caught up in a web of self-protection that makes others insecure by proxy. On the other hand, people who use whatever means to work within the economic structure are exherting power over the environment, thereby making the environment vulnerable by necessity.