Diablo Rojo: History and Myth of the Bus Symbol of Panama

Taking public transportation in Panama City once was an adventure on its own. Brightly painted, loud and unruly public buses used to be the king of the streets of Panama. Colloquially called Diablos Rojos, which means “red devils”, these buses had now been outlawed in Panama since 2010.

But like the devil, these buses continue to haunt the government and the people as debates and protests relating to transportation and the Diablo Rojo continue.

Although many people approve of its obsolescence and phasing out, many people also considered the buses as an important cultural symbol and hallmark of Panama that provides Panama a sense of identity and pride in the globalized world.

What are Diablos Rojos?

The Diablos Rojos are unserviceable school buses from the United States that were purchased, repaired and converted into public transport services in Panama by local entrepreneurs. Most of these buses are owned, managed, and operated by its owner. Still, others are managed through private partnerships that were not regulated properly. As privately owned businesses, the buses create their own schedule trips and routes.

The buses are called Diablos Rojos, not for their flashy or evil-like appearance but their ill reputation as a congested pitfall. The buses are potentially and inherently dangerous. Despite the Diablos Rojos’ cheerful jovial looks, they are accidents waiting to happen.

Many buses lack proper maintenance. Their seats are designed primarily for children. Most of all, they are operated by aggressive, undisciplined and heinous drivers who drive hazardously in the city. They treat the city streets like race tracks or circuits with utter disregard for traffic rules or human lives for that matter.

Many people from passengers, pedestrians, and drivers themselves have succumbed and lost their lives to the unruliness and raucousness of the Diablo Rojo.

The History of Diablo Rojo

The use of buses as a means for public transport in Panama was introduced by the Americans who began importing buses when they took over the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 1900s. When the tram system in Panama or rail streetcar was completely phased out in the 1940s, the bus became the country’s principal means of transport.

When General Omar Efraín Torrijos Herrera took over the government through a successful coup d’état and initiated several reforms designed to provide more freedom for Panamanian citizens in economic affairs. One such reform in the ’70s was the privatization of public transit, which primarily shifted the responsibility of providing public transport service from the government to the private sector. Private entrepreneurs were given authority to operate public transportation services i.e. buses. This paved the way for the proliferation of the Diablo Rojo.

The privatization of public transportation triggered the fast growth of the Diablo Rojo. Privatization allowed for a free all importation of old buses by any private entrepreneur who has the money to invest. The number of Diablos Rojos increased exponentially with little or no government control and regulation.

While the buses helped support and address the equally growing need for the public transport of the country’s population, the lack of government regulation has resulted in making Panama’s transport system one of the worst in the region. The unregulated number of buses caused gridlock traffic jams.

Many drivers lacked proper training and discipline. Many drivers are reckless and do not follow traffic laws resulting in numerous accidents and deaths, which has become a major public concern. Incidentally, the inherent danger involved when riding these Panamanian public buses has earned them the nickname Diablos Rojos.

Andres Salazar and the Diablos Rojos

One of the most recognizable features of the Diablo Rojo is the decorative paintings inside and outside the vehicle that gives each bus its own unique character. A local artist named Andres Salazar pioneered the painting of the buses in the 1950s.

Salazar started painting buses of his uncle to give the old retired school buses from the US a new appeal and a new lease of life as a mode of public transport in Panama. It also transforms the bus to its new identity.

Unknowingly, Salazar would later initiate an energetic folk art movement of Diablo Rojo. As an art movement, Diablo Rojo would use buses as the canvass for art. More local painters have joined the bandwagon of Diablo Rojo artists. They don’t only get paid for their work but can express themselves and get free exposure and wide publicity of their art.

As drivers have competed for passengers, the art in Diablo Rojo has evolved to shocking dissipations of shades, design, theme, and decorations.

How is the Diablo Rojo Painted?

Diablo Rojo painted ex school bus in the street of Panama

At first, there are no parameters set in repainting the Diablo Rojo. The design, color, and style of the painting would primarily depend on the whims and caprice of the bus owner or the imagination of the painter. 

As Diablos Rojos evolved to form cooperatives or unions, buses were then painted in a way to mark their identities, origins, and routes. 

Every different area in Panama has its own co-op or labor union. Buses are decorated in a certain way so that their origins and routes are recognizable. They are sent in piqueras bodegas or garages where the buses undergo restoration, repair, modification, and decoration.

Are Diablos Rojos Unique to Panama?

The restoration and use of retired American vehicles as public transportation is not unique to Panama. Other Latin American countries like Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Suriname, and El Salvador among others have also recycled old US school buses on public shuttles.

Similarly, these buses undergo restoration and decoration. In Guatemala for instance, the art paintings use when refurbishing vehicles are equally imposing and striking. However, the Diablo Rojo in Panama has more passionate paint decorations, energy-pruned, gurgle-skyroofed, music-bombarded, dazzling lighted vehicles out of them all.

In the Philippines, the idea of restoring old American vehicles was also adopted. Instead of using buses, however, old US military jeeps abandoned by Americans in World War II were converted as public utility vehicles. In the same manner as the Diablo Rojo, these jeepneys also feature lavish paintings and decorations that were considered as the national identity of its citizens.

The Art of Diablo Rojo

Because of their mobility and ubiquity, the Diablo Rojo become the most visually dominant feature of Panama City. Both the locals and tourists were impressed by their art, which arguably can be characterized as masculine and working-class. It is masculine because many featured mannish themes and painters and the transport system in Panama is male-dominated. Some paintings are even naughty depicting erotic and stimulating portraits of half-naked women. 

Because the buses essentially cater to the working class or waged people, the art paintings similarly reflect art and images that are appealing to the masses. The wild buses often exhibit high-spirited paintings of reflecting socio-political themes that are engaging to the public. They also commonly present popular pop icons, musicians, religious, showbiz and political personalities. Some of the more common images include Jesus Christ, Bob Marley, and Malcolm X. Still others paintings represent local and exotic vistas and landscapes of famous attractions in Panama. 

Regardless of what theme, style or image is used in decorating the Diablo Rojo, they all share a common attribute. They must be attention-grabbing or eye-catching to appeal to people. After all, the main purpose of these paintings is marketing and promotion which is to attract more passengers. 

Who Paints the Diablo Rojo?

The artists behind the Diablo Rojo are painting practitioners and commercial painters who are usually self-taught. They often lack formal education in an art school but were lured to the art of painting by sheer talent, innate skill, or even the need to earn money. 

The typical rate for painting the buses is between $2,000 or more which was pretty lucrative. Aside from the Diablo Rojo, most of the artworks, vibrant designs and portraits of these Diablo Rojo artists can be seen in local barbershops and cantinas, which are another popular junction for the working class. These included hand-painted signage of brands, places, notices and trendy designs that appear on public walls and public places. 

Why Are the Diablos Rojos painted?

Diablo Rojo decorated bus on a narrow street in Panama
Diablo Rojo Panama” by Nico2panama, used under CC BY / Desaturated from original

The Diablos Rojos are embellished with attractive paintings primarily to catch attention and attract more passengers or riders. This practice of using painting images to attract people actually extends beyond the transportation sector in Panama. Decorative images are also used in restaurants, diners, salons, and other service businesses as a means to attract more customers and patrons.

Some commuters are uninterested, however, of how a bus is painted. Their primary concern is for the bus to get them to their destinations as soon as possible and as safe as possible. Still, others are more discerning. They select buses that sport creative painting designs. Beautifully painted Diablo Rojos create the impression of better buses. 

What Music Is Diablo Rojo Known For?

Aside from its dazzling and arresting paintings and images, the Diablo Rojo of Panama is also known for its loud music. Aside from their screeching brakes, maddening horns, irksome sirens, and boisterous mufflers, Diablos Rojos also pride themselves of powerful sound systems that tower over the sound of the urban environment. The buses are also notorious for their defining reggae music, salsa and other bass-thick tunes that give riders the urban soundtrack of the Panamanian streets.

More specifically, the Diablos Rojos are especially known for blasting reggaetón, which is the popular contemporary music in Panama. Reggaetón is a musical genre that integrates American hip-hop with a piece of Latin American music characterized by a strong base, danceable beats, and a blend of singing and rapping in Spanish.

Reggaeton, however, is not just a fusion of US music to Latin America; it also reflects the socio-political struggles of Panama as an independent and sovereign nation. This dancehall-derived sound evolved in the late 1970s during the bursting integration of Latin American culture when the U.S. finally gave the Canal Zone back to Panama.

Previously, during the US colonial years, Panamanians tackled unbridled discrimination and segregation. Torrijos-Carter Treaties not only gave the Panama Canal to its rightful owners but it also initiated a new sense of nationhood and pride to the people. The evolution of Reggaeton serves as a proclamation and assertion of the country’s newfound sovereignty and identity.

The Symbolism of Diablo Rojo

Because of their central role in the art, music, and history of the red devils in Panama, the Diablo Rojo has become a cultural icon and identity of Panama. Not only did these buses take the important role of transporting Panamanians to get to and from work, but they have also been transformed into a standout representation for Panama.

In the same way that the Big Ben represented London, the Eiffel Tower denoted Paris, or the statue of Liberty denoted New York, the Diablo Rojo epitomized Panama. The flashy and shrill vehicles embodied the culture, arts, and historical struggle of the people as a nation.

Like the tuk-tuk of Thailand or the Chivas in Columbia, the Diablo Rojo has become a tourist attraction. Many tourists considered the Diablo Rojo as edifying symbols that are truly and uniquely Panama.

The Extinction of Diablo Rojo

Similar to the fate of dinosaurs who failed to evolve with its changing environment, the Diablos Rojos were also doomed to extinction. In 2013, over a thousand Diablos Rojos were decommissioned and phased out to pave the way for more modern and safe transportation for the people. The metro bus system was introduced to complement the rapid modernization of the city marked by sprawling shopping malls and towering skylines.

Former Operators of Diablos Rojos were compensated by the government with US$25,000 per bus for phasing out their vehicles. Meanwhile, Diablo Rojo’s drivers who have fewer traffic violations including critical accidents resulting in deaths were also allowed to be trained to drive the City’s new modern Metro Bus.

The metro buses that took the place of Diablo Rojo were safer, more comfortable, reliable and systematic. The government pronounced the deployment of the new buses as an indication of progress while labeling the Diablos Rojos for accidents.

The Replacement of Diablos Rojos

New metro bus on a highway in Panama
Metrobus Panama” by Editorpana, used under CC BY / Desaturated from original

The Metro Buses that replaced the Diablos Rojos are new, clean, neat and comfortable. Unlike the Diablos Rojos which are restored dilapidated school buses, the metro buses are brand new vehicles. This means that they are more fuel or energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly. They hardly conk out on the road. They are equipped with modern conveniences like more apt seating for adult passengers, more comfortable seats, air-conditioning, and more safety features.

The Metro Bus also introduced a more organized and efficient public transport system than the Diablo Rojo. Whereas the latter have no scheduled trips and sometimes even no specific routes, but would primarily depend on the whims of its drivers and operators, the metro bus has centralized dispatching that regulates the number of buses that travels on the road to prevent congestion.

Moreover, unlike Diablo Rojo’s drivers who race against each for passengers to the detriment of commuters and passers-by, Metro bus drivers are given salaries. They are also provided with other regular benefits like ordinary company employees such as uniforms, social security, vacation leaves, and performance bonuses.

The Metro Buses have successfully addressed the problems that have been associated with Diablos Rojos including, their ill-famed accident and death records, environmental and noise pollution as well as the terrible penchant of its drivers to violate traffic regulations and laws.

Despite these benefits, however, the Metro Bus was never saved from criticisms from the public. Among the common complaints against the new buses included the slow service, because of their strict adherence to trip schedule, the increased fare which takes a toll on the riding public and the limited number of buses available. Quite amusingly, critics of the metro buses refer to the new buses as Diablos Blancos or White Devils.

What Happened to the Diablos Rojos?

After being the king of the Panamanian roads for years, the Diablos Rojos were unceremoniously collected and ditched in a big junkyard lot at an enormous field in the old US Howard Air Force Base. While some are left abandoned in bus boneyards, most others are dismantled piece by piece as metal scraps. In the scrapyard, decrepit engines of the Diablos were line up on the ground while the crags of scraps pile up. In a waggish twist of fate, some Diablos were even transformed back as school buses.

Sympathy for the Diablo Rojo

Everything will come to an end at some point in time. the Diablos Rojos that once ruled the streets of Panama have become obsolete and are no longer able to meet the evolving needs and demands of modern society. 

Despite this, a sense of nostalgia lingers among Panamanians with the demise of the Diablos. The nostalgia varies from amusing and jesting thoughts to sincere regrets and serious crusades to revive the cultural icon for wistfulness and art’s sake.

The Diablo Rojo played a significant part in the culture of Panama that brought a unique and inimitable figure of Panama’s sense of place. While they are now defunct and have died out in modern society, the Diablo Rojo remains a deep-seated and enduring cultural icon for many Panamanians

Matt Romero

I’m Matthew Romero, one of the guys behind PanamaLifeInsider.com I am incredibly passionate about Panama, its beautiful territory, and all the incredible opportunities which offer to people coming here from all over the world both either visiting and settling. In this blog, I decided to share my passion with you!

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