This article was published in the Ames Tribune on July 8, 2009.
Guest commentary: Diablo Rojos
The diablos rojos (red devils) days are numbered. These mobile cultural billboards of Panama are on the way out. The revamped old school buses are the public transportation for Panama City and much of the country.
Each bus is privately owned and the owner purchases a bus route from the government of Panama. The owner of each bus takes great pride in decorating his bus.
Several factors are influencing the demise of bright paintings on the buses. Rising gas prices are making the profit margins very small so there isn’t extra capitol to pay for fancy works of art. To increase profit, some are selling advertising space on their buses. Ads for grocery stores and politicians are becoming almost as common as scenes of Jesus on the cross and movie heroes.
Another influencing factor was a fire on a bus in October 2006 that killed 18 passengers, in part because it didn’t have an emergency exit. Now all buses must have a working back door with a usable window. The eye catching rear door portraits are disappearing.
This year the Panamanian government opened bidding on a contract to bring in 420 new buses. These so called diablos chinos (Chinese devils) will be owned and managed by the government. The government probably won’t be interested in paying for fancy paint jobs.
The first new buses hit the streets of Panama in May. The government is buying the routes back for $25,000 each, effectively taking these buses off the roads. What will become of these buses? I don’t know, but Panama won’t be the same without them.
Foy and Jeff are Peace Corps volunteers in central Panama, some 40 miles northeast of Panama City. They live in a town of about 50 people that has no electricity. Their Peace Corps assignment is from May 2007 to August 2009.