A nonprofit helps gang members go legit
Author Katie Morell
PANAMA CITY – Samuel Palacio is dripping wet, and not only because of Panama City’s oppressive midmorning heat. Today is the day he launches his new business, a pedal-powered mobile minimart called Delivery del Casco, and there is a lot at stake.
“I’m excited,” he says, standing on a dusty side street in the Casco Viejo neighborhood. “Nervous and excited.” Nearby, a dog flops down in the shade of a palm tree. Palacio sets off to deliver a broom, a simple job that he hopes will turn his life around.
Until recently, Palacio, 23, was a gang member, part of a brutal subculture that has traumatized this city. He has four bullet-size scars to show for his troubles, and he is no stranger to Panama’s prison system. But, a few months back, he got lucky.
“I heard of Esperanza when I got out of jail,” he says, referring to Esperanza San Felipe, a nonprofit that helps former gang members set up businesses. “I wanted to be a better person, overcome my past, have a family. I have a 2-month-old child now.”
Esperanza Social Venture Club was founded last year by Matt Landau, a 32-year-old real estate investor who moved here from New Jersey. “I was at the funeral of an 8-year-old boy who’d been killed by a stray bullet,” he says. “I just thought, ‘This has to stop.’”
So far, Esperanza (or “hope”) has nine enterprises on its books, including Delivery del Casco, which has just completed its first job. “A lot has happened in my life,” Palacio says, wiping his brow. “I knew I needed to take a step back and make better decisions.”
With this, he eases his cart into a torrent of taxicabs, beaming like a man who has just won the lottery.