Archive for January 27th, 2011

The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of the Queen of the Highway

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Although not a big country, Ecuador features sizable sections of the three main ecosystems found in South America: the dry coastal plain, the towering Andes mountains, and the vast Amazon jungle.  The roads connecting these environments are among the most spectacular and challenging in the world. Often amazing feats of engineering featuring stunning views and landscapes, they are also poorly maintained and policed.

Last month, in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, December 24, bus #57 belonging to the cooperative Reina del Camino (Queen of the Highway), on a regular route down from the highlands capital of Quito (9,200 feet above sea level) to San Isidro near the coast, went over a precipice near La Crespa in Manabi Province.  It plummeted 150 meters (480 feet) rolled over several times and came to rest at the bottom of a deep ravine. 40 passengers were killed, most instantly, although several lingered in local hospitals for a few days. 11 of the dead were children.

In the days following the accident various damning details came to light. The brakes of the bus were found to be defective, and the vehicle itself had not been inspected in over a year.  The driver of record was at home in his apartment in Quito, and the driver in fact was carrying two separate sets of identity papers, neither of which belonged to him. The driver, also killed in the crash, had had his own license suspended twice, and a subsequent investigation revealed that the transportation cooperative “Reina del Camino” was not only aware of the fact, but had facilitated his obtaining the false ID and license.

Furthermore, the deadly toll of 40 dead and 43 injured stood in stark violation of the listed legal capacity for the vehicle, which was 44 passengers.  This is a widespread practice in Ecuador, where busses are the main mode of transportation for poor and middle class families without private cars or money to pay airfares, even when flights exist. The busses, older models often purchased cheap from Greyhound and other foreign companies when they are retired from service in the first world, leave the terminals full of seated passengers who have paid full price for a paper ticket in the bus line’s office at the bus station.  The money for these tickets stays in the office, and goes into the company coffers.

But the underpaid drivers and loaders also feel entitled to a piece of the pie, and so as soon as the bus clears the area around the terminal they start picking up additional roadside passengers who pay a reduced rate to stand in the aisles or crouch on the roofs hidden under tarps. The one time we were actually kidnapped, riding north on the Panamerican Highway in coastal Peru, by the Movimento Revolucionario Tuopac Amaru, we were driven off the road and into the desert where armed thugs started strip searching all of the passengers. Lying face down in the sand with our hand behind our heads, we were surprised to hear stifled cries coming from the baggage compartments under the bus we had been riding on for 14 hours.  The gunmen had discovered an entire family of 7 riding behind the suitcases and trunks.

The money from these “informal” passengers goes directly into the pockets of the driver and his assistant.  The practice is tolerated because it supposedly holds down ticket prices (one can pay approximately 50% extra for “Executive Service” busses which don’t stop between stations to pick up extra passengers), but it results in uncomfortable and dangerous crowding of regular units like bus #57.

Finally, for frosting on the cake, the drivers themselves are seriously abused, overworked and quite often inebriated.  It is not unusual for a driver, who sometimes but not always is also the owner of the vehicle, to finish an 8 to 10 hour run from the coast up to the mountains by polishing off 3 or 4 big beers while they empty and reload his bus, and then climbing aboard to drive it back to its point of origin, where one of his families anxiously awaits. Bus drivers in Ecuador are almost exclusively male and famous for separately maintaining 2 or 3 women and their respective progeny.

The drinking used to bother me the most.  Back in my wild youth as an anthropologist and adventurer of the region, riding these rickety rockets up and down the spine of the Andes, we would make an effort to personally interview the drivers of these long-haul, overnight death traps before boarding.  We were primarily performing field sobriety tests, and on more than one occasion, deterred by the stink of cheap liquor or an unfocused gaze, we would opt for a later departure.  We tended to favor busses with priests or nuns aboard, on the theory that the drivers would at least be reminded of eternal consequences of losing their grip.

As tragic as the accident itself was, the resulting scandal was a paragon of the inimitable combination of high drama and farce so typical of Latin American politics. The President of the Republic, never one to pass up a chance to garner good press, made an immediate visit to the hospital where the majority of the injured were interred, promising remuneration and retribution.  The remuneration took the form of an immediate payout by the insurance company that carried the Reina’s policy, for the kingly sum of $4,850 for each fatality, and lesser sums for the injured.  The retribution became apparent the following week when the Minister of Transportation, citing the unlicensed driver, false documentation, gross overloading and lack of vehicle inspection, closed down the Reina, cancelling their license to operate and ordering all 130 of their busses off the road.

This was a major blow, not just to the 2,000 employees of the company (drivers, loaders, mechanics, station workers, officials) and their families, but also to the citizenry of Manabi, one of Ecuador’s largest provinces.  For many smaller towns and roadside knots of humanity, the Reina was the only game in town, the only way to get students to school, patients to hospitals, goods to market or lovers to assignations.

The company had been formed almost 50 years ago by a small group of mechanics in the agricultural center of Chone, my wife’s hometown.  Her uncle came up with the name.  They started with a half–dozen “chivas”, which are a sort of home made bus, basically wooden benches with a roof built on the platform of old flatbed trucks.  They plied the dusty, muddy, rocky unpaved roads of Manabi, uniting cow towns and haciendas, fruit farms and regional markets, forgotten, isolated hamlets and growing regional centers.

The first declaration of the Minister of Transportation after the accident was the temporary cancellation of the Reina’s license, until all of the 130 vehicles were inspected, the drivers took a special course in bus driving technology and passed vision, health and psychological tests, and the owner of each vehicle posted a special $1,000 bond as surety against future mishaps.  Of course, the universal opinion in Manabi was that this was a $130,000 bonus for the Minister of Transportation whose term in office, like that of all government ministers in Ecuador, was limited by graft, scandal and political expediency.

A week later, however, the Minister was trumped by the President, who announced with redolent indignation that the closure would be permanent, and that he would shortly begin the process of “redistributing” the routes formerly served by the Reina to other cooperatives. Clearly, a process itself assured to generate another hefty and continuing stream of off-the-books revenue. The candidates for the routes started lining up immediately.

But the officials and investors behind the Reina were not about to take this lying down.  They had resources of their own, and 50 years of entrenchment in the establishment of the province.  Think of a league of small-town Latin-style teamsters from Texas.  They immediately availed themselves of a time-honored tradition of Ecuadorian justice – judge shopping.  When a power bloc like this needs relief from executive persecution, they start going from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, looking to find or motivate a sympathetic judge to issue an injunction.

The fact that the one they found was an unknown woman recently appointed to the Children’s and Family Court surprised and shocked no one except possibly me.  Her only possible apparent connection to the case seemed to be that 11 of the fatalities were children, but in these parts a court order is a court order, and her order was to let the Reina loose again.

A classic confrontation of constitution powers, Ecuadorian style!  The executive branch orders the busses off the roads, and the judicial overrules.  Money was moving between private bank accounts and campaign funds like a high-stakes three card Monte at an agricultural state fair.  The federal police threatened to stop the busses and arrest the drivers.  The provincial patrols vowed to enforce the judge’s order, and escort the busses if necessary.

Of course, like 99% of the confrontations in this South American theme park of a country, it was all show.  No shots were fired, but the posturing was world-class and the rhetoric stirring.  The current compromise has 80 of the 130 busses back in circulation while the back-room bartering and bribing continues.  Stay tuned for updates, and choose “executive service” if it’s an option.