Most guys like to think they have some gangsta in them. Maybe less than Tony Soprano, but at least enough to look cool if somebody tried to rob or disrespect them in front of their lady.

I used to be one of those guys until I became a resident of Panama City, Panama — a move I made to live with my girlfriend.

Full disclosure: I’ve never actually had to summon my inner tough guy in battle. if I ever did, he’d most likely get me killed. And now, being in Panama City, I’ve learned that the only guys who do this are the ones who can.

You see, the same way a peasant’s life in medieval times was entirely in the hands of rulers, anyone who steps foot in a Latin American ghetto is at the mercy of the gang that runs it, too. But luckily for me and my family here, similar to medieval lords, even favela (low-income neighborhood) kings adhere to certain principles and unwritten rules.

And actually, they’re quite polite and considerate as can be.

The first thing that really stood out when I first came to Panama was how tangible and sudden the transitions between different neighborhoods are. Once, on a night out with my girlfriend, Greidy, (she’s 28), and her cousin, Juan, it felt as if we came out of a bar in the city center and walked right into a mini-favela.  

“It’s a good thing nobody is wearing yellow,” Juan said, nonchalantly. “That’s the color of the hostile band.”

Needless to say, I shat my pants a bit.

“What if they rob us?” I asked.

“It’s ok, they don’t rob Panamanians,” he said calmly. “So keep your mouth shut until we pass through.”

That moment made favelas — which until then had been a part of my reality no more than Narnia is — feel very, very real. And that was before I got to visit my girlfriend’s grandmother, who actually lives deep in the heart of one.

The day Greidy asked me to go visit her, my instinctive reaction was something along the lines of no fucking way. But after a little push and reassurance, the idea of visiting grandma on her turf started sounding more rational.

“My grandma has lived there for a long, long time,” Greidy explained. “She has known all the head gangsters [of her favela] since they were little boys. She is confident they would never hurt or rob her. Whenever I want to visit her, she needs to tell them in advance. Then I get off on the nearest metro stop to the neighborhood, and my uncle who lives there too comes to pick me up with the car. And there are no problems. My brother has even taken Andres [his 2-year-old son] there.”

And so it happened, a ride in her uncle’s car, who was somewhat reminiscent of a small-time crook from GTA himself. (Greidy later told me she doesn’t really know what he does for a living.)

The visit was everything I had hoped it would be — uneventful. Nobody stopped us or intimidated us in any way; that is if you don’t count the Danny Trejo lookalikes we passed by who would be intimidating even in a cassock.

It was just like Greidy had said: as long as we were with one of their own, we weren’t seen as prey, which counts for something in land of deadly predators.

My buddy, David Dempsey, a dude from Glasgow, has an entirely different account of when he visited the favelas. Being a classically-looking Scotsman, he probably stood out as much as Eminem did in Detroit.

“I went to the ghetto because that’s where you can get cheap weed and the best gear [drugs],” he explains.

David’s ballsiness might have led him to the discovery of another, far more surprising code of ethics certain favelas uphold. In his experience, some gangsters couldn’t care less where outsiders come from, but the attitude they come with.

“It’s the attitude,” he says. “I just went with the same attitude I have here [in Glasgow]. I’m not gonna judge anyone just because they have a tough life. If they see you’re just sound and care about them, they are cool. I went to look for stuff and basically bring them business, but not to be a voyeur and see poverty in Colombia. That’s when you get robbed.”

And certainly, studying hard paid off for David, be it in a rather unlikely way:

“I also know decent Spanish from lessons so I could actually talk to them.”

With the language barrier gone and an attitude that provoked a certain level of comradery, he got an invaluable sneak peak into the way gangsters select their targets.

“I was with these Columbians who were telling me ‘watch how easy it is to rob gringos’ who were on slum tours,” he remembers.

“They just walked up to these Americans and told them, Give me your phone and wallet or I’m going to call the Narcos on you,” David laughs. “It’s like lions hunting, they look for the weakest ones.”

Even though David is certainly no gangster, he managed to find a common language with actual gangsters from a completely different part of the world because he approached them like human beings rather than animals in a zoo. Perhaps, he got lucky too, and in a different ghetto, he might have ended up dead.

But he didn’t.

Nevertheless, it appears as even in a place as dour and ruthless as the Latin American favelas, there are two-way streets, short as they may be, of humanity and respect.

[originally published March 01, 2018]