Tackling violence in tourist areas
PANAMA. As a Casco Viejo resident, coming into office almost five years ago, Tourism Minister Ruben Blades must have been aware of the ...
PANAMA. As a Casco Viejo resident, coming into office almost five years ago, Tourism Minister Ruben Blades must have been aware of the violence afflicting the area, keeping residents secluded within their own quarters and tourist agencies fearing for their clients’ safety every time they rode into the old town.
Perhaps it was this personal experience that inspired him to develop a pilot program to take former gang members in Casco Viejo and turn them into tourist guides.
Claudio Fernandez, from Panama’s Tourism Authority (ATP), dubbed the initiative “community tourism,” explaining that the program was organized to both curtail insecurity in tourist-prone areas, as well as allow residents to partake in the tourism and thus economic development of their neighborhood.
“We worked with people from the same neighborhood, who live there, know what is going on? so that the same residents can benefit,” he said.
Tourism officials sat down with gang leaders and representatives to work out a truce between groups often turning to violent activities for the lack of alternative opportunities.
Around 20 young people, 16 to 28 years old, received six month training in English, local history, and human development.
Throughout training, four got jobs and left the classes. Having dropped out of school earlier, some found it hard to return to the discipline required to wake up every morning and head to classes, and dropped out of the program altogether.
“But as time passed, what was first seen as boring, turned into a means to attain economic security, to keep their wives happy, their children fed and not crying, and to stay away from trouble with the cops,” said Fernandez. All of a sudden, waking up early seemed like a small price to pay.
The first day on their job, the youngsters got applause from their neighbors. Now there are six guides in Casco Viejo from the 20 that first enrolled in the program, as some found alternative activities, two ended up in jail, and one died of natural causes.
The guides build upon their initial training by seeking education on their own, whether in language classes or tourism degrees, when they’re not in their ATP uniform (khakis, and carnets that identify them as official guides).
Around Casco Viejo, the outlook on tourism promotion in the area is also slowly changing.
“What was before another building, can now be taken advantage of. That park that before was a place to sit down, now is a place to make money,” Fernandez explained.
Fernandez, a trained psychologist, said that for many, when we think of gang members in Panama, TV images of violence-prone youngsters with elaborate killing and drug enterprises wrongly come to mind. However, he explained, “most Panamanian children join gangs when they’re young because it seems fun, but at 20 they want out.”
Without encouragement and proper education, it is hard for many to see an alternative lifestyle, or how to even start seeking one. What the ATP is doing is giving them a door out, particularly to those who don’t have any pending “accounts” for which to stay in a gang for protection.
The program is used to introduce youngsters to honest and steady income, in hopes of helping them use their first job as tourist guides as a spring board to better things.
“We don’t expect them to stay on the government payroll for the rest of their lives, instead we want them to see the alternative lifestyle,” Fernandez said.
A LOOK FROM WITHIN
“Insecurity thrived in Casco Viejo was such, that residents from one sector would not walk through another,” explained Jaime Chriary, one of the tourist guides. “People were tired that children could not play freely without fearing for their lives.”
Chriary started off working at the Office of Casco Antiguo (OCA), helping restore some of the colonial buildings in the area. Yet when he heard about the ATP program, he knew it was an opportunity not to be missed.
People from the neighborhood saw the money coming into the area, and many, like him, wanted to get involved in a honest manner, Chriary explained.
Chriari praised the situation in Casco Viejo now, compared to days when tourists would come in buses and would not be able to walk around the area. “Now tourists can interact with the sector,” he said.
He explained the tourist waves into the area are such, that sometimes the 6 ATP guides on duty are not enough to quench the demand for tours headed by locals.
Workers at OCA step in to help, as well as other residents, who learn a thing or two and “leave their homes for 30 minutes, talk to tourists, get tips, and go back home.”
Chriari is now coordinator of the Casco Viejo program, and has set up his own transportation business, with two cars to take tourists around the city.
As word of the program spread, a new problem arose. “People not involved in gangs were left wondering why they did not receive help,” Fernandez said.
So the ATP opened the program up, now offering two-month paid training to around 100 youngsters from the Plaza 5 de Mayo, Central Avenue, Casco Viejo, and Santa Ana. By the end of the year, many of these guides will be located along these areas under umbrella stands offering guidance to tourists.
The shorter training drops the English classes, as Fernandez explains many did not originally want to learn a second language. “I cannot give a basketball ball to a soccer player,” he explained. “There are some who want to learn, others who don’t.” For those who do want to learn a second language, the ATP helps them find additional classes.
The program will also soon start in Colon, where approximately 50 gang members and friends and family of gang members will receive a three week training.
ATP officials met with representatives from the different gangs to come to a truce, and allow the program participants to serve as guides and neighborhood watchdogs.