Posted in News

Panamanian Gang Members Train to Become Tour Leaders

A program called Tourist Assistants, which trains former gang members to become tour guides, is receiving rave reviews in the developing country of Panama.

The program was launched in 2004 by Minister of Tourism Ruben Blades, the famous Panamanian musician now turned politician, soon after newly-elected President Martin Torrijos declared war on corruption.

The San Felipe neighborhood of Panama City was the initial testing ground for the training program. Former gang members underwent a six-month tourism course outlining the history of Panama, lessons in good manners, safety rules and basic English. During the course students received a basic monthly payment to encourage them to give up bad habits and start a better life.

Intended to last only six months, the Tourist Assistants course was so successful that it was extended indefinitely and now includes social risk groups like university students and high school graduates. Since its inception, over 100 students have completed the training, and now successfully arrange prepaid tours for visitors.

Satisfied San Felipe residents and tourists mirror the sentiments of the grateful students, who have been hired by many local tourism agencies. The program ( has now been extended to the highlands, beaches, central provinces and the international airport of Tocumen.

Bordered by both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Panama is attracting an increasing number of tourists. The country markets the rare fauna and flora on Barro Colorado Island as a major drawcard. The country is a melting pot of Creole cultures, and a major commercial hub with the largest free trade zone in the western hemisphere.

In 2008, the number of European tourists increased by over 20 percent. Special tourism zones, created by Latin America’s most modern law for the promotion of tourism investment, host 100% exemption from income tax, real estate tax, import duties for construction materials and equipment, as well as tax holidays.

Says Andrés Beckford, a 28-year-old who has been working as a tourist assistant for two and a half years: “This program has changed my life and the life of my family. My wife was 5 months pregnant and I was unemployed when I was offered this opportunity. In that very moment I felt it was my chance to improve myself. They taught me real values and a place in society. Then, they trained me in different areas like basic English, history of the Old Quarter, communication skills, and much more.”

(Visited 28 times, 1 visits today)

Read Ethical Traveler's Reprint Policy.