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Are Panama's Red Devil Buses Now a Thing of the Past?

April 23, 2013 at 10:46 AM | by | Comments (0)

Panama City, though less visited and talked about than its neighbor to the north, San Jose, is by no means an outdated place. For evidence of that, simply look for the skyscrapers shooting up in high-end nabes like Punta Pacifica, the new promenade being constructed along the coast, as well as the recent arrival of big name hotels (Trump, Hard Rock, Waldorf-Astoria).

But there's one part of the city that has remained a glaring anomaly in the city's tireless campaign to bring itself into the 21st century: los diablos rojos. Translated literally as "red devils," these are second-hand schoolbuses that careen around the city, decorated vividly with cartoon characters and graffiti-style imagery, offering cheap rides to anyone brave enough to flag one down. Needless to say, these bad boys were hard to miss.

The only problem was they weren't the safest way to get around. Drivers were often more worried about what songs were playing on the radio, or how to fill their dashboard with as many dolls, statues, and toys as possible, than what was actually happening on the road.

For years, the city fought to put an end to the red devils—against the wishes of locals, who enjoyed the festive vibes on their morning commute (not to mention the 25¢ ticket price!). Again and again, the government would announce an expiration date for the red devils, and again and again, they would fail to do away with them.

But as of last month, it appears the lawless jalopies have been put to rest once and for all.

When we were visiting the city last month, locals kept pointing out the red devils (not that we failed to notice them ourselves), adding, with a tinge of remorse, that they were about to go extinct. And, sure enough, GlobalVoices confirms that as of March 15, 2013, the red evils were officially nixed by the current government. The article explains:

"[A new] company MIBUS [es] has been in charge of starting to circulate modern transportation units that include payment exclusively with a card. Nevertheless, adaptation to the new method of transportation has been traumatic for thousands of people who use it on a daily basis."

In other words, Panama wants to have a public transit system just like any other city, with a proper metro and regular bus lines. We can't fault them for that. And if the new system ends up putting less lives at risk, so much the better. Too bad it's resulted in the elimination of such beautiful works of public art!

For a more in-depth look at the red devils, check out this fantastic short history by TCU history professor Peter Szok.

[Photo: Flickr / Karen Sheets]

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