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“However, these tours are not so visitors can gawk at the poverty-stricken streets that still dominate the area — despite the massive gentrification of the last few years — but rather to highlight what the human spirit, when offered an alternative reality by way of education and hope, can do. Here are the 10 surprising things I gleaned from taking a Forteleza tour: Read More…

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“This is the alley we used to run up to escape the police after we robbed tourists,” says Luis Ricardo James, nodding at a passageway through a clutter of ramshackle clapboard tenement buildings. “Now we set up our restaurant here in the afternoons.” Standing before James, on a mean street corner two blocks north of gentrification, are three sun-ripened tourists who look like they took a wrong turn in search of caramel lattes. Read More…

6a00d8341c5e8f53ef014e8928cb17970d-800wiPanama, like its Central American neighbors, is struggling with a rise in gangs. A recent census by the country’s security forces put the number of criminal organizations operating in Panama now at about 200. One neighborhood, in the capital’s historic district, is taking on its gang problem with a group of strange bedfellows. Read More…

h1-mens_journalFifteen years after Panama took control of its namesake canal from the United States, the country’s capital city has exploded. Once plagued by crime, Casco Viejo has been transformed into the city’s hippest hood. Sign up for a walking tour with Esperanza, a nonprofit that works with former gang members. Those ex-cons are your tour guides, and they’ll explain the history of the area through the crews that ran it. Read More…

images“I used to want to get through the city as quickly as possible,” she says. “But in the last five years it’s become one of my favorite places.” How to acclimate? Esperanza Social Venture Club’s Fortaleza Tours. Walks are guided by former gang members. For $10 per person they promise you will “never look at our streets the same way again.” Read More…

HuffingtonPost-LogoJafet Glissant was 14 years old when he joined Ciudad de Dios, a gang named after Cidade de Deus, the Brazilian film about street gangs in Rio de Janeiro. Today, he’s a tour guide with Fortaleza, a Panama tour operator that offers excursions into the real-life, dangerous side of Panama City history. It’s run by members of the Esperanza Social Venture Club, an organization that’s symbolic of the changes taking place in Central America’s fastest-growing city. Read More…

indexTo understand what he meant, he suggested I meet Nicolas Mercado, a former gang member who now runs a popular bar called La Vecindad on Avenida A. Mr. Mercado, who has a shaved head and thick, muscled arms, welcomed me in a courtyard at the end of a long entryway where two friendly police officers happened to be standing. Read More…

afar_experiential_logo-9a789adb052f7b3cacecb17d1dec42e8Visit Casco and an ex-gang lord may even help you with your bags. It has been a team effort, locals say. At some point in your stay, you’ll probably be woken up by an impromptu block party. Instead of reaching for earplugs, just walk downstairs and join in. This is not a place for people who are afraid of rough edges. Read More…

AIPLOGOnov1It became obvious how powerful the tour is for the transformation of Casco Viejo. By telling their stories, members of the community start to understand they did not create the problems that plague their community, but they do have the power to make significant change through legitimate money-making enterprises and creative outlets. Read More…

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 3.49.11 PMThe streets of Casco Antiguo have never been safer. If you want proof, you can take a walking tour led by the Esperanza Social Venture Club. This community development club comprises ex-gang members who have now found an entrepreneurial spirit and are into promoting some of the more downtrodden areas as part of the overall revitalization of the old town. Read More…

guardian_logo2Esperanza is a social programme that demobilizes and integrates gangs into society one at a time. It works firstly through intervention with a retreat outside the city and then support in the form of 12 weeks of workshops with the help of sociologists, psychologists, vocational counsellors and members of the business community. Read More…