Panama City may lose its red devils


Panama City’s famous painted buses—“a fleet of US hand-me-downs” known affectionately in Panama as “red devils”—may be on the list of critically endangered species. Similar to Haiti’s tap-taps, the “red devils,” painted down to the hubcaps, have for years constituted the city’s main public transport system. After Panama’s recent elections, when the inadequacies of public transportation consistently ranked as one of voters’ top concerns (helping the incumbent party to defeat), they may be on the way out. Panama’s president-elect, supermarket tycoon and right-leaning Ricardo Martinelli, made modernizing the public transportation system a main campaign pledge and has called for a subway system to alleviate the traffic jams that have become chronic throughout the capital.

Panamanians—and non-Panamanians for whom the buses are a quintessential element of the life and look of the city—are torn about the possible demise of the colorful buses. “The buses are an expression of identity,” says Liriola Miranda, a college statistics professor. “Sometimes the colorful expressions are patriotic, other times it’s something entirely different.” Some are painted with superheroes and saints, pictures of Colombian singer Shakira, bikini-clad beauties, religious imagery, or epic scenes of warriors fighting off lions. Many are named after the owner’s girlfriend or wife – but they are also painted with macho slogans that shout “force,” “power,” and “thunder” or instructions like “If you don’t know the rules, I’ll teach them to you.”

“On one hand it is primitive. Panama is a city with money, and we deserve a good public transportation system,” Miranda says. On the other hand, “there is nowhere else in the world you can find these [buses].”

Carlos Diaz, a bus driver for 18 years, says he supports a new fleet of buses. “Let the new ones come,” he says. “We’ll paint the new ones!”

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Photo by Xinhua/Han Shuo. “ Bus with colorful paintings runs in Panama City, Panama, Jan. 2, 2009.”

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