Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : December 2nd 2014 Contents A36
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Tuesday, December 2, 2014
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. "For-
taleza" 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
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 con-
struction era; right at the edge of where outsiders for-
merly dared not go. Here we were joined by an equal-
ly-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
"How did you hear about this?" I asked the American
"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, card-
board 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 sec-
ond-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
I thought it was a mute 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 ges-
ticulated 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
Transforming the lives of gangsters through Esperanza
been the beneficiaries of the Esperanza pro-
gramme 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 inter-
vention with a retreat outside the city and
then support in the form of 12 weeks of
workshops with the help of sociologists, psy-
chologists, vocational counsellors and mem-
bers 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 mem-
bers got jobs, but it was found that gang
leaders were better suited to becoming entre-
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 intern-
ship 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?
You can support this initiative via:
•Follow George on Twitter:@georgebovell
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