Ganglands part II: El Chorillo ghetto

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

A couple of streets up from the ‘Machete Attack’ supermarket and one block back from the old café that was once known as La Apuñalada (‘The Stabbing’), you find the ghetto area of El Chorillo.

There are dangerous areas in many cities (including apparently ‘civilized’ metropolises like London, Paris and New York) but the people of Panama’s old town are not happy simply to declare El Chorillo ‘dangerous’. With barely concealed pride they would have you believe that El Chorillo is nothing short of fatal. They warn you from going there at every opportunity and even try to chase you back out if you do.

Nobody would go sight-seeing in El Chorillo in any case, and it would be unfair to tempt fate by walking there. The locals know that a gringo being robbed or hurt in the area would mean police harassment and very likely a temporary stall to much of the illicit activity on which the neighbourhood thrives. But the quarter is positioned so that it is hard to avoid when you are crossing the city. When you drive through you lock your doors and try to keep in mind that whatever happens you won’t stop for anyone until you come out the other side.

Entering El Chorillo by taxi one afternoon my driver was going through the normal rigmarole of winding up windows and locking doors. A hole in the windscreen had been cellotaped over and there was something about the tobacco-coloured stain on the glass, like burnt sugar-water, that made me ask what it was. It was, as I’d guessed, a bullet-hole. When we finally stopped the driver showed me two more neat holes punched into the boot of the car.

The taxi driver shrugged and smiled. “Oh, it’s ok. They weren’t shooting at me,” he reassured me. “They wait until a thunderstorm gives cover for the gunfire then the gangs fight it out between their streets.”

I made a mental note never to get caught in El Chorillo during a thunderstorm.

Tomorrow’s ganglands post: the welcome gift you won’t want to receive (or on second thoughts…)

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