The Most Fascinating Tour Ever: I spent two hours with a former gang leader in Panama City

The Most Fascinating Tour Ever: I spent two hours with a former gang leader in Panama City

At the American Trade Hôtel where Jafet is showing me his name and the other gang members of Ciudad de Dios (City of God) are etched on the grafitti wall

In Panama City, Jafet Glisant, former gang leader of the Ciudad de Dios (City of God) is now a member of a new club…The Esperanza Social Club, a rehabilitation program that has helped reduce crime and give back to the community.

The tour began where it all started– at the American Trade Hotel which was built in 1917 to accommodate all the officers and personnel that helped build the Panama Canal. Due to the onset of the Economic Crisis in 1989, the once thriving Casco Viejo neighborhood started to decline – construction of the canal had halted which meant no jobs and revenue for the community. By 2000, the American Trade building became abandoned and the street gangs took it over renaming the building, ‘Grayskull Castle’ where they started running illegal operations.  Jafet was 14 years old at the time and just had a child so, with few options to make ends meet , he joined the gang to support his family.

Then, something extraordinary happened; KC Harding, an American expat and visionary, acquired the building through Conservatorio, a development agency he led. He dedicated himself to turning the building and community around. Although there were 3 major street gangs when Harding came to Panama City, the Ciudad de Dios prevailed, and he hired the gang members (including Jafet) as his bodyguards with the hope that he could educate and lead them out of a life of crime. It did not work for Jafet, however; he went to jail on 3 separate occasions for a total of 11 years for drug trafficking and burglary.

When he was finally released, Jafet, with Harding’s guidance, got his high school diploma and became an active member of Esperanza Social Venture Club. In 2017, in an odd twist of events, the government decided to open up a file on Jafet and 18 other individuals suspected of crimes. At that time, Jafet was studying for a law degree and he was able to prove that he was a rehabilitated, law abiding citizen. The other 18 people were not as fortunate, and they are all still incarcerated. Jafet attended the University of Panama and, in 2020, he will be graduating law school and will defend the 18 individuals trapped in the system.

Currently, the American Trade Hotel is under the ACE brand and it has been lovingly restored. As a reminder of the past, the gang’s bullet holed graffiti that once existed in the back alley hangouts of the Casco Viejo neighborhood has now been preserved as wallpaper in the stairwell of the American Trade Hotel.

Esperanza Social Venture Club is a program of Calicanto, a non-profit organization that invests in the development and entrepreneurial endeavors of Casco Viejo’s ex-gang members.
The Esperanza Social Venture Club’s goal is to re-integrate the former gang members of the neighborhood into society. In fact, it was actually the graduates of the program who came up with the idea of creating a tour that highlighted their former lives as gang members.

Special thanks to Jonathan Zelcer, founder of Truly Panama