Upcycling Across Borders: How U.S. School Buses Become Camionetas

Where do school buses go when they die? It might surprise you to learn that most American school buses don’t die at all; they’re often reborn as public transportation south of the border.

The story of one aging school bus that was sold off and driven to Guatamela to begin a new life as an ornate shuttle is the subject of a new film that premiered at the SXSW Film Festival this week, La Camioneta. Through this one bus, the film examines how one country’s trash becomes another’s treasure, the importance of mass transportation in a country with widespread poverty and how violence and gang warfare threaten the safety and viability of that transportation.

Image courtesy of the film La Camioneta

The school bus goes through a lengthy, thorough recreation to become a Camioneta

Camionetas are used in Guatamela to ferry people from villages to cities and back again. But nearly all of them begin as school buses phased out of use here in the states. While the buses are in plenty good shape for the most part, once they reach a certain point in their lifespan, school districts auction them off and purchase new ones.

Waiting to buy them are South American companies, who drive dozens of buses South each day. They make a treacherous drive through Mexico (trying their best to avoid extortion, gangs and robbery) until the bus finally makes it to Guatamela.

But even though they have arrived in Guatamela, they are still just buses -not yet Camionetas. Over weeks, the film crew watched as workers painstakingly retrofitted the school bus into the colorful, striking Camioneta. There is a true artistry to the recreation.

Image courtesy of the film La Camioneta

A finished Camioneta at its christening.

The film also looks at the violent world that surrounds the Camionetas. Gangs and organized crime extort money from the companies, many of which until recently dealt only in cash. If bribes aren’t paid for “protection,” drivers are killed and buses are bombed. Almost one thousand Camioneta drivers have been killed since 2006 “for either refusing or being unable to pay the extortion money demanded by local gangs,” according to the film’s website.

“I thought of the bus as a vehicle into that world,” director Mark Kendall said. “A way for audiences to identify with something they might distance themselves from normally.”

In public transportation in Guatamela, many systems have moved away from cash to pre-paid swipe cards, so drivers no longer carry large amounts of money. “We were there during a time that was particularly intense and somewhat unprecedented,” the film’s Guatemalan producer, Rafael Gonzalez said after screening the film. “Now we have some police on the buses.”

But for non-public transportation, the filmmakers say the situation is still very dangerous. “If they don’t pay the ‘day rate,’ there’s vengeance,” Gonzalez says. “They’ll kill drivers until someone pays up.”

The film was funded in part with a kickstarter campaign, and you can see it at the SXSW film festival tonight in Austin.

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