The Diablos Rojos were Panama City's main means of transportation from the mid 1900's until 2011, when the government started to replace them with the MetroBus -- a modern, air-conditioned, more comfortable and safer system. Panamanians are starting to see less and less of these devilish buses that forced their way through the city's gridlocked streets at suicidal speeds, honking their horns and intimidating and angering anyone who dared to challenge them. Today, more than 600 Diablos Rojos sit abandoned in a junkyard waiting to be scrapped for parts or cremated.
After the capital's tramway system was dismantled in the 1940s, the government was left with a transportation dilemma it hoped to solve by instituting bus routes in the city. First came what are known as the chivitas -- ramshackle trucks made of wood or metal and fitted with benches on each side to accomodate up to 12 people. Because of their low capacity, they were extremely inefficient as the main means of transport. As a result, during the 1970s the government of General Torrijos started to import old school buses from the United States and assigned their ownership directly to the drivers. This meant the drivers were able to do as they wished, including to use them as their canvas. Local artists would paint everything from portraits of the driver's family members or celebrities (local and international), to imaginary landscapes, cartoon characters, religious proverbs, Panamanian sayings and more. Drivers also added their own personal touches: mag wheels, massive stereo systems that could wake the dead and accessories that would make MTV's pimped rides jealous.
Art museums paled in comparison with the parade on the streets.
However, these buses were far from safe. Frequent fatal accidents and myriad discomforts -- long waits, cramped seating, lack of air conditioning, ear-popping music, crazy driving, competition for passengers, pollution -- turned them into a veritable hell for commuters. Hence the name: Diablos Rojos.
Starting in 2011, the government began replacing the Diablos with the MetroBus. And in a year or so, the transportation system in Panama City will get another big boost -- the first line of a subway system.
Panama City's economy is thriving -- you can see it everywhere, from the Panama Canal expansion, to the mushrooming of skyscrapers, real-estate boom and now, the modernization of the transportation system. But a thriving economy does not mean that a country's cultural heritage has to be left behind. These days, with constructions and urban planning advancing at full tilt, it seems like Panama City is losing its cultural and historic traditions that have made the capital so unique.
Diablos Rojos: Fin De Una Era, Sofia Verzbolovskis' photographic tribute to Panama's moving canvases is on show in Manhattan at El Taller Latino Americano's Grady Alexis Gallery until October 19th.