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Panama City Gang Members Turn Tourist Guides

  • George Putic

Gang graffiti still defaces some of the walls in Panama City's once-impoverished neighborhood of San Felipe, but many of the beautiful old homes have been refurbished.

The area now attracts tourists who want to learn firsthand about the violence in San Felipe's not-so-distant past.

When city officials decided a decade ago to open up the old town for revitalization, some gangsters realized their past experience could be marketable. Now, they are tour guides.

“It's not just anybody that can stand on a corner and say he was a crook,” said tour guide Jafet Glissant. “‘Look, I did this; look, I was in jail for so many years. I stole. What's more, I robbed a lot of tourists.' They are going to say, 'Wow, they are going to rob me, too!' It's not easy. Am I clear? That's what really impresses them."

The American Trade Hotel in Plaza Herrera was once a gang hangout. Panama's Ministry of Public Safety persuaded the new owners to employ some of the former gang members.

Revitalization, however, came with a price. Many residents had to either adapt to the new life, or move out. But for some, tourism brought jobs and income. And tourists love it.

"I thought it was very interesting, to see the process these people have gone through,” said tourist Julio Santamaria. They “used to be part of a gang, and they have now found a way to be productive for society, and to accept the change taking place in their community, and to choose to be part of it."