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.
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.