It’s tough to walk a mile in the shoes of someone who’s been shot. But it’s worth the walk anyway, to learn about how people gone bad can find their way to good. In the Central American country of Panama, Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood is a great place to do it.I’m walking with former bad boy Samuel Palacio through Casco Viejo, a historic district in Panama City that has long been riddled with crime, much of it gang related. Samuel is in a gang no more; he now runs his own business, Delivery del Casco, which he performs on a bicycle delivering food and dry cleaning and other services to folks in the neighborhood.
He pulls up his shirt to show me old bullet wounds. He started in gangs at 13, stealing, dealing drugs, shot four times by 16, spending a few years in jail. Now he’s 23, young enough to start life anew, which he’s doing pedaling a bike around a neighborhood getting safer all the time thanks to this program he’s in.
“I was glad to hear about it,” Samuel says with a smile. “I decided to give opportunity to myself.”He is a graduate of the nonprofit Esperanza Social Venture Club that puts its hope in caring. Co-founded in 2013 by Matt Landau, owner of the Los Cuarto Tulipanes hotel, Esperanza works with gang members looking to turn their hard, often lethal way of lives into something productive.
The organization invests in the development and entrepreneurial endeavors of Casco Viejo’s ex-gang members, a 10-week intensive intervention program that graduates participants into the area’s restaurants and hotels, a small number of them – Samuel included – starting their own small businesses with investor seed money.
“Something was missing in social programs, there was nothing for young men,” says Landau, whose hotel customers would often be robbed by gang members. “We started this and it’s evolved into a movement.”
It wasn’t an easy sell to the general public: He said a survey showed that over 70 percent of Panamanians think “mano dura” – which translates to “hard hand” – is the answer to street violence, fixed by arrest and jail. Esperanza thinks otherwise, preferring not to allow gentrification to shift the problem to other neighborhoods, but working with the gangs and “demobilizing them by integrating their members from the margins of society into the mainstream, where the natural human tendency to behave according to society’s expectations can positively effect their behavior.”
Esperanza focuses on geography, trying to stabilize one former gang territory at a time, and when it does, calling it “Zona de Paz,” or “Zone of Peace.” It would seem to be working: Landau says that 80-90 percent of those participating in the program find work, with several starting their own businesses, making their “Shark Tank” style pitches to a panel that doles out money for them. That would include Samuel, as well as another ex-gang member and former drug dealer who delivers seafood to restaurants, and another who brings lunches to offices.
A most compelling part of Esperanza is its Fortaleza Tours, in which former members of the Ciudad de Dios gang take people on tours of the area, highlighting the improvements in the neighborhood, having already turned an alley, or “el callejon,” into an open-air food court.
It is a community effort: Neighboring restaurant Donde Jose worked as content mentor, teaching some of the boys to mix drinks which are served at the food court. Local photographer Tarina Rodriguez got them started by providing photos. In the first month of operation, the boys of Fortaleza respectably earned a respectable $2,800 for their work.
We take a tour one day, guided by three ex-gang members now part of Fortaleza, who show us their old stomping grounds, starting at the American Trade Hotel, an upscale lodging that had been abandoned for years, and was impromptu housing for squatters and gang members. Stories abound: One involves a gang member living in the then ramshackle building who had to jump out of a second-story window to avoid being killed by another. The jumper is now a successful businessman.
They make no apologies for their past behavior, preferring to emphasize their present, which includes showing us a hallway of the hotel emblazoned with old graffiti, now preserved as testimony to what this area had been.We walk through narrow streets, encountering happy families out on them, feeling safer than they have for years. The boys on the tour talk about how this area 10 years ago was dangerous, with tourists being robbed and shot. Hard to imagine, the reminders hard to ignore: In one area next to another that is still plagued by gang violence and we are advised to stay out of, children play near a building with walls pockmarked by bullet holes.
We make our way to the alleyway where lunch is served, fish, rice, beans and other local staples. Here is Nico Mercado, a former gang member who has a music studio up a blue-painted alleyway with colorful triangular banners flapping above.
In his gang days, he used to sing about violence, having always loved music. Now he makes CDs to sell, writing his own lyrics. He proudly shows us a video of his little boy singing.
“If not for Esperanza,” Mercado says, “this would not be. For me, I’d be in jail or dead or rich.”Now he’s none of the above. Now, he’s happy and productive. For him, that’s the only wealth that matters.
For Samuel, there was no choice. He says in 2014, the house he crashed in as a gang member burned down. Seven people died. He was lucky to not be one of them.
“I didn’t want to step back, and I have a baby now,” Samuel says. “I overcame my environment, and have a family.”
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