Bidding Goodbye to the Diablos Rojos of Panama

When General Omar Torrijos came to power after a velvet coup d’état in 1968, drastic changes were made to the effective Panama urban transportation system.  Torrijos wanted rapid changes.  He wanted to flex the military muscle fast and hard and wasted no time.

The traditional transportation concessions of the hated rabiblancos were nationalized and replaced with independently owned buses.   Gone were the cash cows concessions granted to Barletta, Arce, Carbonel, Alemán families and other political and economic allies of deposed President, Arnulfo Arias Madrid. From this revolutionary period on, each bus would be owned by its driver.  Torrijos thought this was an effective measure to guarantee the stability of his nascent military regime.  He didn’t trust the rabiblancos. They could potentially meet to organize a national transportation strike and paralyze the country.  He wasn’t running any risks.  At least that’s what the new “Revolutionary Process” trumpeted to a country in a state of shock.

During the sixties the buses in the city were green, light blue, orange and other bright colors.  These  colorful omnibuses had replaced the old tram routes—in Spanish “tranvías”— and the new ones created as a result of the expansion of the city such as Parque Lefevre-Catedral. Independent “chivas” encompassed the so-called domestic routes; “Chorrillo-Hospital” or “La Boca-Río Abajo” hauling the workers of the Panama Canal.

Gen. Omar Torrijos, a populist leader, believed that capitalist companies were responsible of crushing the humble mainstream Panamanian worker to a slow death.  Now, a bus would be like a “machete” to help the working class put food on the table and make ends meet.  It was now their time to count the greenbacks.

With the help of General Francisco Franco of Spain, Torrijos tried to organize Panama’s transportation system with the unfortunate Corporación Urbana de Transporte (CUTSA).  Over the years, the system became sour and is currently in an absolute state of chaos.  Passengers have to enter the few available buses via the back emergency door or through the side windows.  An immediate change is imperative.  The underclass Panamanian people can’t take it anymore.

It’s common to see people waking up at three o’clock in the morning to begin their perilous bus journey to their jobs.  They return home about nine o’clock in the evening when their children are already asleep.  The family is seldom together.  The basic social tissue of the country has been torn apart.  A total collapse of the transportation system is hampering the national economy creating all kinds of social problems.  Urban gangs are sprouting everywhere like fresh spring flowers.

President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, promised his followers he would tackle the problem and come up with a swift solution.  The planned overhaul of the Panama transportation system is called Metro Bus.  The Metro Bus Project will get rid of more than 1,500 outdated buses.  These aged buses were used in the States to carry school children;  they were not designed to mobilize adults. Rapacious greed came before the passenger’s comfort.

Below are the main  features of the Metro Bus Project:

  • Obsolete buses called Diablos Rojos will be purchased by the Government of Panama to be repaired and used by the Ministry of Education.  Indemnification per bus is $25,000.
  • Well trained  bus drivers will receive a monthly salary and will be included in Panama’s social security program.  Labor stability will be guaranteed via a normal labor contract.
  • The new fleet will be equipped with modern air condition units.  The temperature in the city is very humid and hot most of the year.
  • Bus fares will be paid with rechargeable electronic cards.  This measure is to “keep honest people honest”.
  • Buses have been specially designed to accommodate persons with wheel chairs, elders and pregnant women.
  • Buses will be monitored with special computer software to guarantee strict adherence to schedules.
  • During first year, the new concessionary will maintain the current bus fare of $0.25 per passenger.  After all buses have been replaced, a new tariff will be put in effect.  This amount has not been disclosed.  Part of the new fare will be government subsidized to put a cap to potential social unrest.

Last week a public international bid was held with the participation of three large economic conglomerates:  Metro Bus Panamá (Brasil-Panama), Grupo Express, S.A. (Colombia-Chile), and Transporte Masivo de Panamá (Colombia-Panama).  The public solicitation called for the design, transportation service, and the efficient operation of a modern transportation system in Panama City.  The base price was $270 million.  The new system is required to mobilize approximately 600,000 persons per day, to and from work.

The lowest bidder was Transporte Masivo de Panamá owned by Colombian and Panamanian businessmen.  They offered $269 million for the concession and plan to recover their investment by charging $0.64 per passenger within the metropolitan area, and $1.10 in the speedways (Corredor Norte y Corredor Sur).  The government of Panama has promised to subsidize part of this fare to help the working class who is struggling to remain afloat.  The new buses will start arriving a few months  after the contract is awarded, sometime in July 2010.  My best estimate is December 2010.  I promise to keep track of this project like a hawk.

Below are several photographs of the current Diablos Rojos which have been placed on an  extinct species list.  It’s expected they will disappear from the streets of Panama City when the new transportation concessionaire is fully operational.  A new era will begin in Panama.  (Fingers crossed.) These are the pictures of the dreaded Panama buses.

Photograph of a Diablo Rojo (Red Devil) at the El Dorado bus stop in Panama City, Panama. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
Photograph of two Diablos Rojos at a busy bus stop in Panama City. Notice how well decorated they look. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
Photograph of a Diablo Rojo arriving at a bus stop at "Tumba Muerto". A passenger can't stay away from his cellphone. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
A side view of a Diablo Rojo in Panama City, Panama. A street vendor is busy selling her stuff. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
Another view of a Diablo Rojo at El Dorado bus station. Take notice of the expensive chrome exhaust pipes. They make a roaring noise that will break your ear drums. Can't stand it. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.

These are the famous Diablos Rojos of Panama.  In a few years down the road they will only exist in the memory of the dwellers of this exciting city.  Thanks God they will go the way of the Dodo.  Thanks Mr. Martinelli.  Good Day.

19 thoughts on “Bidding Goodbye to the Diablos Rojos of Panama”

  1. I hear you, Omar, about the need to modernize and improve on the urban transportation system in Panama City, but the disappearance of the Diablos Rojos will be another step in the homogenization of the city into another bland, characterless place on a map. They give the city, and the country, a dash of color. A zestfulness that makes the city unique. Take that away and what have you got? A bunch of high rise buildings nearly indistinguishable from Miami, Casco Viejo which, to me, is reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans or the Battery in Charleston, South Carolina.

    As wonderful as a new fleet of buses will be, they certainly aren’t going to go any faster on Via Espana during rush hour.

    New, modern, air conditioned buses are definitely needed, but I think they should be painted up just like the Diablos. It they aren’t then I think Panama has lost a little bit of its vibrant soul and the country and its people will be a little poorer for it.

  2. Hi Richard:

    You are right about the loss of attractiveness of the Diablos Rojos. The problem is how deteriorated they are. They are practically falling apart in the streets of Panama.

    The Diablos Rojos were aged school buses for children, imported from the U.S. used to transport adults, which is inadequate for an effective transportation system of the 21st. century.

    We could try to repair a couple of them as tourist attractions, but not for general use. Their useful life has been over extended.

    Your idea of painting the new buses like Diablos Rojos is a wonderful idea. Panama Tourist Bureau could organize a contest for this creative project, making Panama the only country in the world where buses are folk paintings in motion.

    Traffic jams will be with us until the subway is in operation. That will be approximately three or four years from now. Panama’s streets are saturated with cars. We desperately need a massive transportation system like an urban train or a metro.

    Best Regards,


  3. Maybe we should start a campaign to have the new buses painted like the Diablos. Get people to write the Department of Transportation and the Tourist Bureau pushing the idea.

  4. Hi Richard:

    I think you just hit the nail right in the head. I would suggest writing to the Panama Tourist Bureau, since the Minister has a direct access to President Martinelli. He was the campaign manager of Martinelli.

    He understand marketing very well, and the unique buses would be a major tourist attraction. How about writing a blog about this idea? I will start tomorrow spreading the word. You could do the same with your blog as well. Maybe we could get Don Ray’s cooperation. He’s a highly respected person in Panama.



  5. Hi Omar,
    I think that was one of the first words I learned after arriving in Panama? haha Bus fare was 5¢ to almost anywhere in the city. (1968) We hired a bus driver one night to drive about 15 of us around the city all night while we had a going away party for one of our buddies (I don’t remember clearly how it ended…).

    In addition to the unmuffled exhaust pipes, every bus had a monster stereo blasting, sometimes drowning out the roar from the exhaust.

    One of my LAST encounters with a diablo rojo (chivabus, we called them) was when one pulled out in front of me and I crashed my car into his front right fender. This was 2 days before my tour of duty ended and I was scheduled to return to the USA. I was handed the copy of the ticket that assigned the accident as my fault even though the bus driver had run a red light. I never made the court appearance. I have been living as a fugitive ever since!! haha

    I agree that the loss of the colorful buses would be a major mistake. Keep the buses in good working order but paint them as a tourist attraction. Bright colors are always welcome in a drab city environment.
    jim and nena
    fort worth, tx

  6. Hi Jim & Nena:

    “In addition to the unmuffled exhaust pipes, every bus had a monster stereo blasting, sometimes drowning out the roar from the exhaust.”

    Yep, I forgot about those blaring loud speakers. They literally knocked you out leaving you totally deaf.

    One nickel. That’s right. Sigh…

    Thanks for reminding me of small details of those chivabuses as you call them.



  7. Hola Jaime:

    Entiendo su escepticismo. Sin embargo, soy bastante optimista con lo que promete esta administración. Los cambios que estoy observando en el país son impresionantes.

    “Bienaventurados aquellos que sin ver, créen.” Ojala que Metro Bus sea un completo éxito. El pueblo Panameño se lo merece.



  8. I know the Diablo Rojos drive like the world is ending and people are killed and accidents happen all the time. Does anybody know where I can find some statistics on this subject? Like how many people per year do the Diablo Rojos injure or kill, and how many traffic accidents they are involved in?

    Thanks in advance.

  9. thank you for your wonderful posting abut the los diablos rojos. i have just returned from panama city from an expedition of shooting the diablos, drivers and companions. of course my stay was too short only three days of constant shooting, cut short from diesel fumes.

    this was only my second visit were as i fell in love with them on my first, maybe it was more on the individualism of the diablos which we lack here in new york. my lack of speaking spanish hampered me but the warmth and graceness i found from the panamian people more than made up for it.

    yes i think they deserve modern a/c busses as the city is growing way too much, but who is to say?

    as soon as the turmoil from my wedding day passes this sunday i expect to post on fuzzypictures some images and my feelings. i always appreciate others points of view. thank you for this conversation.

    jene youtt

    1. Hello Jene:

      I really enjoyed reading about your experiences with the Diablos Rojos in Panama City. Will take a look at your site to see your pictures. I’m sure they will be stunning. Next time you’re in town, let me know and I could help you with the Spanish language.

      As you probably know, a new fleet of a/c buses will be coming to the city sometime in December. We badly need them as you noticed.

      Best of luck with your photography project,


  10. omar

    you can email me from my web site i am full of questions. be warned there is nudity on my web pages as i do a lot of figure studies.

    i keep hearing different dates for the change over, i am not sure when i’ll be able to return, getting married in two days traveling across america by car will be in california beginning november. but who knows where life will lead us?


    1. Hi Jene:

      Congratulations on your marriage. The new buses, 200 hundred of them, should be arriving sometime in December 2010. Then every month there will be new buses coming until the whole fleet is replaced.

      We’re talking about 1,500 buses. They were ordered to Volvo and Mercedes Benz. That will put Panama in a priviledged position, having one of the most modern public transportation in Central America. The model was studied in Cali, Colombia where it was successully implemented.

      Drive safely,


  11. Article: Diablos Rojos: Painted Buses and Panamanian Identities
    Author: Nina K. Mller-Schwarze – NINA K. MLLER-SCHWARZE is Assistant Professor. She is a cultural anthropologist, researching identity in the Republic of Panama. She directed and produced the video project Diablos Rojos: Los Buses de Panam, which trained shanty-town youth there in filmmaking, and which was recently nominated for two awards at the Royal Anthropological Institute’s film festival.

    In Panama City, Republic of Panama, debates about transportation modernization focused on diablos rojos, refurbished used U.S. school buses. City-wide protests, debates and national legislation relating to transportation were negotiations for local identity within globalization. This article is salvage anthropology, for painted buses are now outlawed. Detailed observations, interviews and archival research support a history of bus painting, descriptions of buses situated in social networks, and a heteroglossia of viewpoints regarding the bus as symbol. This article complements the 2005 documentary video Diablos Rojos: Los Buses de Panama, available on and

    1. Hi Sharad:

      The privatization of a mass transportation is 40 percent complete. We are now adjusting the system with modern highways, overhead pathways, synchronized traffic lights and brand new Volvo buses equipped with air-condition systems. There is some confusion with the different routes, waiting passenger stations and scarcity of buses for the high volume of passengers. Fine tuning the system will take about eight to twelve months.

      Simultaneously a new subway system is being built scheduled to be put in operation during the first half of next year.



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