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6 Jun 2020 1:27
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  •   Home > News > International

    El Chorrillo bears the scars of a US invasion and gang violence. But amid the heartache, there's hope

    Tourists are warned not to go near El Chorrillo. A US invasion devastated the area in 1989, and gang violence grew in its aftermath. Many kids get pulled into a cycle of poverty and crime — but some people are working to turn that around.

    "Don't take them down there — it's not safe," a woman sternly warns.

    She's walking past a group of tourists near a colourful mural welcoming people to the neighbourhoods of El Chorrillo and Santa Ana, in Panama City.

    Her comment is directed towards Victor Perez, a Panamanian who leads walking tours through the area — and her concern is understandable.

    People there have witnessed a lot in the past 30 years — the US invasion of Panama devastated the area in 1989, and brutal gang violence grew in its aftermath.

    "They don't see tourists very often, and some of the older people think it's the same as 30 years ago," Victor says.

    "But this new generation are not thinking like this. They see the present and the future. They want to do something in the neighbourhood."

    Just 10 years ago, El Chorrillo and Santa Ana were a no-go zone for outsiders.

    Gang violence is still a problem, but Victor says it's dropped significantly since police became more prevalent in the area.

    He says the neighbourhood is tarnished by the past, but is also home to warm, friendly people.

    "When I was in school, I didn't want to stop by El Chorrillo because I felt like it wasn't safe," Victor recalls.

    "But then I wanted to try. Every time I went on the bus, I asked them to stop earlier and I would walk through the neighbourhood. While I was walking around, I met the people and that changed my thoughts.

    "I saw the children running on the streets, and I thought, right, I want to use tourism to fight against poverty, and give opportunities to the children."

    Operation Just Cause

    El Chorrillo was created in 1915 to cater for workers involved in the construction of the Panama Canal — many of whom came from the Caribbean.

    Once a calm and quiet neighbourhood, that changed as military dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega, whose headquarters were based in the barrio, became immersed in drug trafficking, liaising with the likes of Pablo Escobar.

    The formation of gangs also escalated when American weapons were left behind in the streets after the US invasion of Panama on December 20, 1989. .

    The invasion was codenamed Operation Just Cause.

    It involved some 27,000 troops, and resulted in the arrest of Noriega. Once a paid CIA informant, he'd been indicted in the US on drug trafficking charges.

    The US reported that 202 civilians and 314 Panamanian Defence Force troops were killed in the operation, but these numbers continue to be widely disputed.

    A commission is currently underway to determine the number and identity of the victims through interviews, DNA testing, and exhumations.

    "I personally was a part of the commission, and that was organised ... by the Panamanian government in order to understand and find out what really happened," says Jose Castillo, a professor of international relations at the University of Panama.

    "Today we are still counting dead bodies and missing people."

    'It's like nothing happened'

    Victor often takes tourists past a mural in El Chorrillo that says: "Dec. 20, 1989. 30 years. National Day of Mourning."

    "Many of the buildings you see now didn't exist before. Before it was wooden houses," he says.

    "When they came looking for Manuel Antonio Noriega, they bombed this area. All this area was completely destroyed."

    December 20, 2019, the date which marked 30 years since the invasion, was declared a national day of mourning. The commission is evaluating a proposal to make it an annual memorial day.

    "In our government, every December 20, it's like nothing happened," Victor says.

    "So the people in this area remember it through the art and the graffiti."

    Empowering the next generation

    Victor is now working to give the next generation a brighter future, and try to end the cycle of violence and poverty in the area.

    Three years ago, he and his friend Christian started Localinptykids, a program that teaches English to underprivileged children through different educational activities and games.

    The program is run from the community police centre, and Victor says it's having a huge impact.

    "The benefit of the program is positive, because the children trust us, police have built trust, and the community trust us," he says.

    "Now the children can learn English and they can find a good environment to be in instead of being on the street."

    Replacing guns with kitchen tools

    Alexandra Cortez is also working for change.

    "What I would like for the area ... is for the gang situation to disappear," she says.

    "It's not as intense that it used to be, but it's still going on.

    "Right now I can walk by myself during the day, but if you go further down to street 17 in El Chorrillo, it's more dangerous."

    Alexandra is one of the founders of Mi Barrio 507 in Santa Ana, which aims to supply youth with the skills and education to lift themselves up out of crime and poverty.

    In March, one of the volunteers involved in her project lost their brother because of gang activity.

    "He was just walking in Santa Ana, and the gang from El Chorrillo passed by and shot the guy. He was only 23," she says.

    "We heard the gunshots very close."

    One of the peculiarities of her project is the involvement of former gang members.

    Among them is Remigio Alvarez, who has replaced his guns with kitchen tools.

    "He now even cooks and distributes food for the rival gangs who are now their friends. A true lesson of love," Alexandra says.

    Remigio was born in Santa Ana, and he is now an ambassador for the project.

    "It's been very dangerous to grow up here due to the danger of the gangs," he says.

    "When you realise that most of your friends are dead or in jail, I decided to make changes about my future.

    "I have faith that one day the gang problems will be over for the children. If we open our hearts, our future will be brilliant."

    Victor would like to see more support from the government to improve the area, and its future.

    "I think people in the neighbourhood need more opportunities, and the government needs to be a part of this," he says.

    "If you don't give them opportunities, they are going to keep doing what they have been doing.

    "We would also like to give more opportunities and activities not only for the children, but for their mothers, parents, and other people in the area as well."

    In the meantime, Victor and Alexandra will continue to try and shed light on the history of the area, and help locals and their youth ensure their future looks different from the past.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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