It is getting dark and my friend Manuel, a local journalist, is driving me in his battered old pickup truck through the ruined streets of the tough and violent Panamanian city on the Caribbean coast – Colon.
Near the first corner where we stop I spot an old woman puffing on something wrapped in a makeshift paper cone. The smoke is heavy and it stinks: it is neither tobacco nor marijuana; it is something unidentifiable and thoroughly vile. She spits on the ground and then looks straight at me with provocative and bloodshot eyes. I say nothing, she says very little; but those few words that she utters represent the lowest grade of the language that used to serve such great poets like Cervantes and Octavio Paz. Her Spanish is indeed as degraded as the stuff she is smoking, but she does not care, nothing seems to matter to her anymore.
Two kids aged roughly 8 and 12, are carrying some dirty carton boxes on their heads. They first salute me with the thumb-up sign, than with some complex gangster finger-twisting gestures. I try to imitate them but cannot match the complexity and so I reply with a grin, which evokes bewilderment on their faces and which they refuse to return.
The stench all around us is bad – of rotting food, an open sewage, probably a decomposing rat or other unfortunate creature that passed away somewhere nearby.
“Work quickly and get into the car!” says Manuel. “This is ‘red zone’ – ‘zona roja.’”
“What is red zone?” I ask. “A brothel district?”
Almost every country in Latin America has its own terminology, at least for brutality, sex, and poverty and for public buses.
“No”, he replies. “Simply the most dangerous part of the city. The epicenter of the gang violence.”
I take a few more still images, then film for two minutes and finally get into the car.
“The best is still to come. Frankly you saw nothing, yet”, explains Manuel. “But for the time being, let’s follow some common sense: don’t buckle up, don’t roll down the windows unless you are really ready to film; don’t make any eye contact and please keep extremely low profile. You are in the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere.”
Of course you hear the same warnings all over the region: “The meanest streets of the Western hemisphere are those of Port-Au-Prince in Haiti, of Tijuana in Mexico, of San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, Rio de Janeiro, Cali or Medellin. And if you buy into the Western defamation coverage of El Proceso in Venezuela, you would certainly believe that the murder capital of the Western hemisphere was Caracas.
But no matter how bad the other contenders are; Colon is unique in its hopeless decay and ferocity.
The city never truly recovered from the brutal US invasion of December 1989, cynically code-named “Operation Just Cause”. The operation was launched to oust the strongman Manuel Noriega who used to be backed by the US, but at some point opted for the worst crime imaginable in the eyes of the Empire: to part ways with t