Fiery, dangerous, blazing with graphics, and searing hot the eyes of a visitor gazing upon its visually stunning body for the first time. These magnificent creatures have been crawling and gliding through the roads of Panama for more than four decades while leaving a trail of billowing diesel fumes, and at last they will face their extinction this year. They are called Diablos Rojo or “Red Devil” buses, cultural trademarks of Panama’s roads which are in the process of being completely replaced by Panama’s modern metro buses, and no mercy will be dispensed by the government who has relentlessly been damning anathema on every red devil they see since the early 90s.

Dumped by the US who sold these old second-hand school buses, Panama adopted the ingenious way to innovate its appearance by painting bright graffiti on these buses and lining its exterior with brilliant neon lights that make prominent their shells to look like bright demigods of the road in the night. Without air-conditioning, these buses are noisy and can be uncomfortable during the heat. At $US0.25 per ride within the city, passengers are packed so tight like sardines in the buses while music can be heard blasting out of the bus stereos, with the occasional noises of horse races, sports, games and soap operas. The name “red devil” originated from the colonial dances the Spaniards used to introduce Catholicism to the isthmus. These dances were performed during religious festive days which featured monsters that looked astonishingly frightening, hence the “red devil” name was bestowed on these buses.

The early blossoming of these red devils can be credited to the rapid urban expansion of the capital in the mid-20th century. At that time, Panama City was undergoing through a major change in its population and cultural dynamics, facing an influx of immigrants, transients and rural Panamanians seeking employment. As a result, the city exploded into a vibrant culture that saw new bars, nightclubs, brothels, movie theaters, actors, magicians, artists, musicians and dancers springing up. With these refreshing inspirations, self-taught artists who were sons of West Indian immigrants were hired by bus drivers to clothe every visible portion of these old school buses from its rear to the front bumper with fiercely colourful imagery. These hand-painted imagery can include anything from celebrities, religious figures, animals, movie scenes, cartoons, latin dance, the country-side, and even condoms and the bus drivers’ own wives and girlfriends, gracing side-by-side in ornamental collage shouting out expressions of free-thought, attention, engagement and perhaps rebellion against a sanitized-looking modern ideal of transport. Destinations are written in graffiti style on the front of the windshields while stickers and decals add to the decoration. However stunning these paint works are, they do not meet the strongest qualities since these buses lack a clear coat to protect the artwork. Amazingly unique, no two red devils look the same.

Because red devils are independently owned and operated, there are no official bus routes and passengers are made to get used to this by watching and memorizing the stops. An announcer can be seen at the font shouting out the bus’ destination as it comes to a stop. The disorganized transit routes, reckless driving and even pickpocketing have contributed to the lack of safety in these vehicles.

Panama's Red Devils

Photos by Jan Axel (top and bottom right) and Gerald Zinnecker (bottom left)

It is not surprising these buses pose a threat to the government’s elitist ideal of a First World city. Their imagery is seen as offensive and vulgar, while their sluggish energy and services are considered backwards and dangerous. Officials have since put in place laws to professionalize its workers and ban the use of music, to the dismay of many bus drivers who retaliated by blasting out music within hearing distance of government officials. Since May 2008, plans to permanently remove the red devils had been in the talks, and will finally see it coming to past this year. Despite the government’s offering of $25,000 indemnity to red devil bus owners who trade them for the newer fleet, owners have been reluctant to surrender their beloved buses. Artists involved in the painting of the buses like Ramón Enrique Hormi have also joined the bemoaning crowd, crying over the loss of one of Panama’s greatest cultural characters.

For a foreigner experiencing Panama, riding the red devil screams an urgent opportunity of a lifetime, and the last. It is of utmost shame that these truly individual pieces of art have to be wiped off in favour of mundane but understandably safer metro buses, its riding experience only existing in memory. Sure enough, other Latin American countries like Guatamale, Colombia and El Salvador do have their own red devils (commonly known as chicken buses or chivas) which still run in the streets. However, this cannot be fairly compared due to the individual and unique artistic nature and riding experience of each bus that cannot be replicated, and Panama’s legions of fleets will face the danger that will be bestowed upon them.

Panama's Red Devils

Discussions on how to preserve these red devils have nonetheless shed some light of hope to the retired fleet. One such creative idea was marine biologist Héctor Guzmá’s conversion of the red devil into a floating research vessel to track manatees (left image). Art gallery Diablo Rosso (a play of the red devil name) sells bus parts and doors as pieces of art. Still, other red devils were not so lucky by being scrapped or dismantled for disposal. Can the legacy of Panama’s red devils still be preserved?

However the outcome, one thing is for certain…Panama will no longer be the same.


This article was published on Vida De Latinos’ online magazine, 1 July 2013.

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