From Street Gang to Service Industry in Panama

$48,189 $11,811
Raised Remaining

It may be just past the mid-year point, but we already have a lot to report. 

Most importantly, Esperanza has completed Phase I of our five year plan!  As you might recall, we intially set out with four goals:

1. Demobilize the three gangs operating in San Felipe, Casco Viejo (Intervention)

2. Provide their former members with real opportunities to integrate into formal society (Integration)

3. Create a lasting prevention capability with the most promising graduates to prevent the next generation from becoming gang involved (Prevention)

4. Systematizing Esperanza's methodology so that it can be replicated (Replication)

In April we completed the intervention with the third and final gang operating in San Felipe (Las Terazzas)  and in June we received the Monitoring and Evaluation report from Vitalitas Consulting and the results strongly indicate that, with completion of this third and final group, Esperanza has succeeded in its first goal and completed Phase I.

Determining whether a gang is operating as a gang or not is as much art as it is science. To do this, we use a diagnostic took created by Vitalitas Consulting that asks key questions of the participants, the surrounding community and the police before and after each intervention regarding their perceptions of safety and gang activity. The survey also looks at quantitative and qualitative factors surrounding the individual participants' behaviours as well as those of the entire group.  

Again, the results at the community and group levels were impressive. In just six months the percentage of residents and police who answered "yes" to the question of whether a gang was operating on the street decreased by over 50%, indicating a major improvement in community perception following the program.

At an individual level, we look to see whether certain worrisome behaviors have decreased (we call them risk factors) and other positive behaviours have increased (protection factors).

One of the most important protection factors is formal employment. Eighty percent of the graduates of the third group either obtained formal employment or started their own businesses. Other important protection factors such as social capital (the measurement of an individual's personal network) and participation in community activities increased, while key risk factors showed significant declines, such as arrests and victimization. (The full Vitalitas report is attached.)

All of these are good signs, but in reality, they are just the beginning. Changing indiviual behavours to the point where former gang members can permanantly integrate into formal society isn't quick or easy. The Vitalitas survey is a snap shot of a moment in time, but we know that without extensive ongoing support, all of those changes can be lost quickly. (In fact, a number of the last group lost their jobs following the Vitalitas survey and are now working with Esperanza's counselors to get back in the saddle). 

The total cost of the first phase was approximately $160,000. It may sound like a lot, but when you consider that incarceration of the graduates for even one year would have cost at least twice that amount it begins to look like a bargain!

With the ex members of the three former San Felipe gangs now focused on changing their lives for the better, we turn to Experanza's second phase (Integration), which is ensuring that the former members gains are permanant and they don't revert back to old habits. We don't expect this to be quick or easy, but it is critical to make sure the program's gains are permanent. The main goals are:

  • Formalizing the graduates businesses so that they qualify for credit and can begin moving into formal housing
  • Completing a "restorative justice" process so that the remaining tensions among individuals are resolved to prevent future problems
  • Working with the Panamanian government to remove the graduates from the national gang database so that they are not stigmatized

Phase II will take us 18 months and will have a cost of approximately $125,000. In some ways it's going to be the least visible work we do. How do you get donors excited about someone keeping a job, not doing drugs or not getting arrested? But the honest truth is that no matter how good an eight week gang intervention program is, without serious follow-up by trained counselers and social workers, change won't last long. 

As always, we are deeply appreciative of your support, as are the graduates themselves. They know that Esperanza is not a government program. That it is supported by hundreds of people who want them to succeed makes a big difference to them, as it does to us. 

Fortaleza Tours Invitation
Fortaleza Tours Invitation

Because You're Invited...

As Fortaleza Tours, the third business to emerge from the Esperanza Social Venture Club, celebrates 365 days of transformation with a toast to all its supporters this Saturday in the Callejon at 7pm.

It’s relevant to point out that most gang reintegration programs of the world operate in one of two ways:

Either they open their door and say, “Come to us as an individual and we’ll help you get out of a gang.”

Or they say, “Come to us as a group and we’ll help deconstruct your gang so that each can go on his own path.”

But as you may have gleaned, Esperanza is a little different.

We attempt to harness the very characteristics that made that gang “functional” in it’s own unique way…and divert those dynamics in a pro-social direction.

That’s why younger graduates choose to be placed in a formal job setting.

While the higher leaders of the gang who have charisma, leadership skills, and hustle can actually launch their own business...

The process of training the young men that now operate Fortaleza Tours went something like this:

Step 1: Graduate meets with small business specialist to design dream business plan (in the case of Fortaleza, walking tours of a former red zone)

Step 2: Graduate learns Powerpoint and Excel

Step 3: Graduate presents business proposal to panel of Casco Viejo business leaders

Step 4: If approved, Esperanza provides seed capital to graduate’s start-up business

Step 5: If proven motivated, Esperanza provides graduate with ongoing legal, marketing, and moral support via our content mentors and volunteer network

It should be noted that we didn’t come up with this process entirely on our own…

We had help from a team from MIT’s Sloan School of Business Management, who expressed interest in helping simply because they had never seen a program like this executed before. And neither had we!

But suffice it to say, today three months into operation, Fortaleza Tours is bringing in approximately $3,000/month in revenue and social metrics are all pointing in the right direction.

If you are wondering what Fortaleza's impact on the neighborhood looks like...check out the attached map:

It shows that in the past 15 months, there have been ZERO REPORTED CRIMES in the Fortaleza territory. This is something the police, our neighbors, and the members of Fortaleza itself are very grateful for. 

Apart from being featured in all kinds of positive press outlets, we all think this is really the cause for celebration, and we hope to share the moment together!

Where: Fortaleza Callejon
When: 7pm-9pm Saturday, March 28th
RSVP: Jaffet Glissant 6031-8961


- Matt, KC, & The Entire Esperanza Team

Map Of Crime In Casco Viejo
Map Of Crime In Casco Viejo


Graduation Invitation
Graduation Invitation

This Friday, January 16th is a huge day for us here at Esperanza San Felipe: 

First and foremost, our newest group of young men will graduate from the Esperanza reintegration phase of the program at 10AM at the American Trade Hotel!

Some of these young men will be placed into jobs here in Casco Viejo and the surrounding areas.

Others will start their own businesses.

As a loyal supporter, we wanted to make sure you received an invitation to this event (attached).

As this is our third graduation, we know there's a very special energy in the room during these sorts of graduations and we'd be honored to have you share in the moment.

Second, in the same evening (if you're not able to make the graduation) we will be hosting a photo exhibition LAUNCH PARTY at Diablo Rosso cafe here in Casco.

This exhibit is a product of an art therapy project in which the boys used cameras and some basic photography training to tell their stories.

Apart from the wonderful art work and imagery...

It will be great to have you there for a drink and to celebrate this next phase in their lives.

Both invitations can be found attached (and feel free to forward this to friends and colleagues): 

Photo Exhibition Invitation
Photo Exhibition Invitation
Group three, day 1: At the retreat in Penonome
Group three, day 1: At the retreat in Penonome

When you last heard from us we had just wrapped our second intervention (with the Forteleza group), reporting 85% employment/entrepreneurship, along with other extremely promising statistics. We'll we are proud to let you know that Forteleza's employment and entrepreneurship statistics haven't changed, and we've now started our third intervention.

The latest group started three weeks ago and is still 19 strong (from 21 orignially), which is by far the best retention rate we have ever seen. They have passed through the full personal develpment cycle, working on self-esteem, communication, conflict resolution and other topics, both in groups and individually with the staff psychologists.  

This week they began the skills development phase, which will last unitl mid-January, when they will start jobs or start businesses.  There is a lot to do between now and then, but we're really excited about this group. 

If things go as well as they have with the previous two, this will the the third of four gangs in our community that have committed and changed thanks to your support and the hard work of the Esperanza technical team. 

If you're thinking of a gift for the person who has everything this year, why not make them a member of the Esperanza Social Venture Club. It's kind of amazing what a lot of people giving $25 per month can do!


Jafet, Forteleza Tour
Jafet, Forteleza Tour's Marketing Manager

In January 2014, we began working with the Ciudad de Dios gang in San Felipe. Following graduation in April, we reported that the group voluntarily removed their graffiti, adopted the name “Forteleza." Some had begun working and some had started businesses.

At the six month mark we asked an indpendent firm, Vitalitas, to help us survey the participants, police and community to understand what changes had taken place. Here is some of what they found:

  • 85% of the graduates are still working A majority of police and community members surveyed reported a positive change in the participants' behavior
  • Only about 20% of the residents surveyed believe there is an active gang on their street, versus over 60% prior to the start of the program.
  • The participant's risk factors (arrests, negative conduct, victimization and involvement with drugs) have dropped sharply, while their protection factors (social capital and participation in society) have increased.

We were thrilled by those statistics. And thankful for everyone who supported this intervention. But maybe most powerful were the words that the participants spoke to the interviewers about the changes they felt:

  • “My mentality has changed, my way of making a living has changed. Now I have a vision for the future. I don’t think about killing nor in being killed.”
  • “I don’t live trapped, running from the law, thinking about food.”
  • “Before people looked at me with fear. Now they respect me.”
  • “Now I can heal wounds I caused to my community.”
  • "I can walk with tourists and be part of society."

Employer reviews of the graduates working in Casco hotels are positive and Forteleza Tours is going strong. The boys are making a living and creating a vibrant cultural attraction in an area that tourists feared just a few months ago. (The full report is attached as a .pdf, which includes the a project finance summary).

So while there is a lot of work left, we are comfortable saying at this point that the intervention was a sucess. Casco Viejo has one fewer gang and eleven new leaders thanks to your help!

We learned a lot from this intervention and are looking forward to doing it again with one of the two remaining Casco Viejo gangs starting in October. If you know anyone who would be interested in knowing about Esperanza, please encourage them to become a member of the Esperanza Social Venture Club. We depend on members' monthly membership dues to keep this good work going!

Josue, American Trade Star Bartender
Josue, American Trade Star Bartender
Marco, Forteleza Tours
Marco, Forteleza Tours' Sous Chef
Antonio, explaining graffiti to guests
Antonio, explaining graffiti to guests


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Project Leader

Keyes Hardin

Panama City, Panama

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