Swaggering Through Hell: The Rise and Decline of Panama’s Red Devil Buses

Swaggering Through Hell: The Rise and Decline of Panama’s Red Devil Buses

Article by  Peter Szok 

Click here to view a slideshow of images from this article.

A Spanish-language version of this article is available here.

On a passenger bus in Panama City, painter Cristóbal Adolfo “Piri” Merszthal (born 1979) has fashioned a depiction of the Incredible Hulk. The image is derived from a recent Hollywood movie and is plastered across the back of the vehicle whose sides and front end are similarly decorated with exotic landscapes, zig-zags and pronouncements boasting unabashedly of “power,” “style” and “talent.” The superhero stands grimacing at the viewer, his muscular arms stretched outward from the emergency exit and positioned as if to break an enemy. Cartoons and swirling colors surround the figure and add to its forceful and eye-popping quality. Inside, thumping reggaeton blares from a stereo system, and a roaring muffler rattles nearby cars with its vibrations. The “Hulk-mobile” boasts a powerful air horn that lets out a blast as it screeches to a stop, its ear-piercing brakes also doing their part to contribute to the sense of strength and showmanship. Piri’s creation is bombastic and even aggressive and is designed to call attention to the vehicle, which like most of the public transportation carriers in Panama City is an old and refashioned school bus from the United States. Hundreds of these thunderous galleries circulate in the capital and are commonly known as “red devils.” The name comes from the colonial dances, which the Spanish had used to introduce Christianity on the isthmus and which are still regularly performed on religious holidays featuring equally astonishingly demons. Today, the custom of the decorated bus, which stretches back at least six decades, faces the possibility of elimination as a consequence of factors that had initially encouraged its emergence. The red devils are a product of Panama’s chaotic urban development, and ironically they now face potential elimination due, in part, to this same unruly environment.


The predecessors of the red devils blossomed in the mid-20th century as a result of the rapid expansion of the capital and its poorly regulated transportation system. In 1941, authorities closed the city’s street car system, just as thousands of U.S. soldiers were stationed in the country to protect the canal from an Axis attack, and a wave of immigrants and rural Panamanians arrived to seek employment in numerous defense infrastructure projects. During World War II, Panama bustled with new opportunities, and entrepreneurs responded by importing vehicles to transport the growing number of urban residents.

The population of the capital district increased from 84,000 in 1930 to more than 133,000 by 1940. It rose another 31 percent during the following decade. Several large bus companies were established, but they were never able to dominate the market. Small businesses retained a constant presence and battled fiercely against one another for their passengers. Drivers racked up abysmal safety records, while their vehicles took on amazing decorative qualities that naturally reflected the period’s styles and fads and served to strengthen their competitive position.

With the influx of servicemen and other transients, wartime Panama developed a raucous nightlife with dozens of bars, cabarets, and brothels opening their doors to the restless newcomers. Cuban musicians came to perform in these venues along with a great variety of other entertainers, ranging from tango singers, flamenco and ranchera artists, cumbia bands, magicians, hypnotists and opera stars. Rumba, however, became the soundtrack of the capital and was played on its juke boxes and expanding radio stations. Meanwhile, new movie theaters opened in Panama City and featured the exotic and lavish productions then so typical of Latin American cinema.

Inspired by the films, tropical music and clubs, the bus owners hired largely self-taught artists to adorn their vehicles with colorful imagery suggestive of rumba and the ongoing “vogue of primitivism.” Idealized representations of the countryside became common, along with beach scenes, palm trees, jaguars and other animals. Alpine mountains were ironically another favorite, with their snow-capped peaks thought to help cool the passengers. Many of the artists were the sons of West Indian immigrants. They had learned their craft fashioning signs in the Canal Zone which relied heavily on English-speaking labor from the Caribbean. These pioneers established a network of apprenticeships stretching from the time of Merszthal and his contemporaries all the way back to the decorators of the so-called chivas.

Common in the 1940s, the chivas (goats) were covered, flat-bottom trucks with benches on either side, accommodating up to 12 customers. Often their embellishments had a “newspaper quality.” Like calypso and other genres of Caribbean music, they exploited the prestige of national and international popular culture, and they chronicled its changes with portraits of actors, singers, athletes and other celebrities. An author visiting Panama during the Second World War was stunned to find renderings of Churchill and Roosevelt inside the cabin of a captivating chiva.


The interiors of the chivas were often extravagant and swirled with clippings, trinkets and stickers. The area around the driver’s seat was especially ornamental and reflected the “collage sensibility” apparent in santería altars and in many other elements of Afro-American expression. In fact, religious figures frequently appeared in these spaces, layered or positioned next to feathers, dolls, toys, beads and similar knick-knacks. The impact was to entangle potential customers and to lure them onto this multi-sensorial spectacle, an effect augmented by loud horns and whistles and by the mambos and boleros playing over the radio. Occasionally, riders listened to boxing championships, to horse races, baseball games or to riveting soap operas. In their loud and showy nature, the buses projected a black and working-class identity and contested the European dominance of the city. Indeed, observers often referred to their disruptive qualities and their capacity to beguile and incorporate those around them, much like a rumba star winning over the audience. Passengers reacted by tapping their feet, by humming, or commenting on the explosive imagery. School children became especially fond of the shows, and they waited patiently for the arrival of their favorite chiva, usually identified by a brightly painted name, taken from a well-known song or movie. In the early 1970s, amidst a series of populist measures, Panama’s military leaders dissolved the major transport companies and turned the system over to the small owners who relied almost exclusively on the used school buses. The red devils entered their golden age and, in effect, became the “owners of the street.” They evolved into the most visually dominant aspect of Panama City, as competition increased among a growing number of providers who used music and paintings to engage the public.


The red devils’ fortunes declined in the early 1990s as a result of the same urban tumult which had supported their emergence. The United States had invaded Panama in December 1989, and the civilian leaders who replaced the National Guard began to take notice of the capital’s disorderly development, especially as they prepared for the fulfillment of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties (1977) and anticipated the 1999 closing of the last U.S. military bases. Leaders refashioned their plans for economic development and envisioned tourism as a new source of income to replace the revenue of the free-spending soldiers. The buses were now considered too antiquated for the governing elite’s vision of a first-world city, and regulatory measures were gradually established to manage more closely their operation, to eliminate their use of offensive images and language, to professionalize their workers and to ban their music. Óscar Melgar (born 1968), one of the country’s leading bus painters, later commented bitterly about these changes, noting how the “red devils without music were effectively not red devils.” Many disgruntled drivers agreed with that position and blasted their stereos outside the earshot of officials. Meanwhile, the state extended credit to new investors and encouraged them to import more modern equipment. The hope was to replace the red devils with what some described derisively as the “refrigerators.” These were plain Hyundai buses with air-conditioning units that froze their passengers, who were accustomed to the isthmus’ hot and humid climate. Most ended up discarded in junkyards, unable to withstand Panama’s unforgiving roads. The impulse for change nevertheless continued, especially after a horrific 2006 accident which took the lives of 18 people. This case did not involve a red devil bus; however, it brought negative attention to the industry and raised legitimate concerns among the public, disgusted by the deaths and reckless driving and the difficulties in commuting about the city.

In May 2008, the government of Martín Torrijos announced his determination to remove the red devils permanently from the capital and to replace them with a system of articulated buses. His successor President Ricardo Martinelli promptly scrapped this plan in favor of a metro system to be combined with a network of corporate managed vehicles. Of course, even as these ideas seem to be marching forward, they do not confirm the definitive end of the red devils. Panama City’s terminals are lined with the wrecks of many previous reform efforts, and it remains to be seen if this one will be entirely implemented. There have already been a number of “atrasos” (delays). In the meantime, the artists who traditionally have painted the red devils are discovering other outlets for their talents. Many have always worked in restaurants, barbershops, hotels, and other settings for popular art. Óscar Melgar has transformed himself into a studio painter, shifting the aesthetics of the strutting red devils onto pieces hanging quietly in galleries. Piri Merszthal occasionally finds work embellishing taxis, private cars and even children’s bicycles. Panama’s bus art tradition has always been linked to commercialism, and it is likely that it will adjust to the changes and manifest itself in some other brassy and creative way.

PETER SZOK is associate professor of history at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas.

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