Gangster's Paradise

It wasn’t what I expected from a bunch of gangsters in Panama City’s worst slum. I immediately felt ashamed of my biased preconceived notions. “Fortaleza” was emblazoned on the bright blue business card that was handed to me by a very respectably-dressed man in his early 30s. He said his name was Jaffet Glissant. 

I will admit it I was a bit nervous. This wasn’t the sort of thing I usually did, and did not want to find myself in a situation in which I no longer had any options. I was about to take a tour of a part of the city that up until a few months ago would have been impossible for outsiders like myself to visit.

My friend, who was a local, assured me that we would be safe, but it was Jaffet’s professional appearance that really helped to assuage my concerns. His self-respect and the pride he took in his tour business were evident—from his careful attire of freshly-polished black leather shoes, black pants, tucked-in white polo shirt and a classic Panama hat. We were quickly charmed by his broad smile and cheerful demeanour. It was hard to imagine when we learned later that Jaffet had spent eight years in prison some time ago. 

We met where the tour started at the American Trade Hotel, a refurbished relic of a rich past, recently brought back to its former glory from the Canal construction era; right at the edge of where outsiders formerly dared not go. Here we were joined by an equally-well-dressed, more Amerindian-looking colleague of Jaffet named Marcos, an American tourist and a tiny, older woman who was to be our broken-English translator. 

“How did you hear about this?” I asked the American tourist.”

“A friend who lives here insisted I go. He said the New York Times is here for six weeks doing a story on the programme”, he retorted.”

“Wow! Programme huh!?” I decided to switch and pay closer attention to the tour guide’s Spanish and not the over-simplified version of the broken-English translation. Things immediately got real.

The gleaming white, palatial American Trade Hotel used to be an abandoned ruin and was the scene of multiple homicides. I listened intently as they described its huge cavernous interior being full of graffiti, cardboard and dozens of people seeking shelter. It had formerly been the base of operations of the notorious Hijos Prodigos (prodigal sons) street gang, also known as Los HP.

As our tour guides led us, vividly recounting the days past, they suddenly stopped, pointed to the second-storey window above and to the pavement below, “and that’s where they finally caught up with Mario la Mafia, the HP leader, they shot him three times before he threw himself out the window,” Marcos causally recounted.

I thought it was a moot point, but decided to ask anyway, “Did he live?” To my surprise they all laughed. “Oh yea, ...and now he walks like this!” our hosts cheerfully exclaimed as they all simultaneously gesticulated a limp that resembled a dance.

The tour continued in this manner as we walked for some time, meandering through the alleyways. Hair was braided on benches, the complicated smells of cooking, washing detergent and waste wafted through the air. Jaffet and Marcos stopped us a few times to recount raids from rival gangs and vivid accounts of various firefights that pertained to the many visible bullet holes that were everywhere.

With as many as 16 families crowded into the old structures, separated by cardboard and plywood, there was often collateral damage, he explained. We spoke about crack-cocaine and high-powered assault rifles; nothing was held back. We made sure to support the local entrepreneurs who were springing up due to the newfound peace. The recent change was visible and tangible to the whole community.

“We used to live here!” Jaffet explained as he pointed to a large four-storey unfinished concrete hovel behind some barbed wire that evidently served as a public clothes line. “We used to be the Ciudad de Dios gang!” Marcos, Jaffet and our tiny broken-English translator explained that they and the whole community had been the beneficiaries of the Esperanza programme that they had recently graduated from six months before. 

Esperanza is a social programme that demobilizes and integrates gangs into society one at a time. It works firstly through intervention with a retreat outside the city and then support in the form of 12 weeks of workshops with the help of sociologists, psychologists, vocational counsellors and members of the business community. In it, gang members receive psychological counselling, education, help to find formal housing and are embraced and mentored by the local business community. The young gang members got jobs, but it was found that gang leaders were better suited to becoming entrepreneurs. 

As I stood there gazing at the dilapidated structure and imagining the men next to me as teenage soldiers in this former war zone, Jaffet explained that he was finishing high school and runs the marketing side of the tour business while Marcos is doing an internship in an accounting firm and handles the tour’s accounts.

The five former senior gang members who run the tour each make approximately US$600 of supplemental income a month from it. A few others started a contracting firm. Now a neighbouring gang wants a “turn” with the programme.

If Panama can do this, why can’t we?