Project #16125

From Street Gang to Service Industry in Panama

by Fundacion Calicanto
Samuel & Delivery Del Casco
Samuel & Delivery Del Casco

It's been a tremendous last few months here at Esperanza San Felipe. Between bringing on Margaret (our new full time Energizer battery) and preparing big new alliances and partnerships with individuals and corporations that think differently, we are full-speed assuring that Casco Viejo's marginalized young men have real opportunities to integrate and permanetly thrive. Here are some specific victories from the last few months worth sharing:

Once A Hustler, Always...

When Esperanza graduate Alexis of Servicios Elektron Handyman (see photo below) began running a program that would pay for neighborhood clean-up projects using donated second-hands gifts, we thought that was pretty cool. But upon being featured in CC-TV America's mini documentary, Alexis realized his concept has touristic potential too. With the assistance of a famed Panamanian, Alexis will offer a 1 hour tour of the Buenas Obras system (including the community store, his house, several project sites). He will be offering his tour to Esperanza supporters over the next few weeks (no fixed fee, donations only) so please call him to reserve your spot: 6886-5591. The tour is totally fascinating and Alexis is one of Esperanza's most deserving beneficiaries.

You Support, We Deliver!

One of our community's more incredible success stories is Samuel and his company Delivery del Casco (see photo below), a convenience service in the historic district. This coming month, Samuel is on track to make his final payment on the seed capital loan that he received from Esperanza Social Venture Club and this will make him a true pioneer in our eyes: the first graduate to pass through each phase of Esperanza and rise to the very top. In true trailblazing fashion, Samuel also just signed an agreement with El Rey Supermarket for the exclusive rights to all their Casco deliveries. We are so thrilled to support prototypes like Samuel: if anyone with experience in small business would like to help support Samuel's next business move, please contact for more details. If you'd like to support by using Samuel's Delivery, simply give him a call: 6344-1812

Esperanza In The Press

We are always honored to be mentioned in different press outlets and have the pleasure of sharing with you a few from the past month:

  1. Atlas Obscura: We leave the hotel, pushing past tanned men and women in flowing dresses and linen shirts. Some of them sling camera equipment around their necks. It’s opening weekend of Panama City’s international film festival..
  2. A Travel Broad: Panama is a city of contrast.  Favelas in between skyscrapers.  Modern technology with rolling blackouts.  Locals wearing high end fashion brands, while others wear traditional Panamanian garb.  Global banks and deadly gangs (200 still active in Panama City, to be exact).
  3. Copa Airlines: A video about Esperanza's very own Antonio of Fortaleza Tours. This video was presented at the Panama Film Festival and got raving reviews. Amidst Panama's negative press of late, this is the kind of work ethic and values we believe should be promoted heavily.

As always, it goes without saying, your support is arguably the most unique thing that Esperanza has going for it: a group of alternative thinkers around the world who believe in solving our own problems in innovative ways. Thank you from the bottom of our community.

Alexis Quintero & Buenas Obras Tours
Alexis Quintero & Buenas Obras Tours
Antonio Janes & Fortaleza Tours
Antonio Janes & Fortaleza Tours
Once A Hustler...
Once A Hustler...



When someone asks how is Esperanza funded, we share with them the unusual fact about you, our amazing supporters spread around the globe, who donate monthly to keep our efforts afloat.

The more often we share this, the more we realize how unique this model of small monthly gestures actually is to the world of fundraising.

The following exciting news is a direct result of what makes your support so meaningful to us. It's the fuel that keeps us going every single day!

1. We Have A New Executive Director

As the Esperanza community continues to grow, and the kinds of transformations begin to vary, our team recognized the need for a true Executive Director. With experience at both USAID and Fundacion Jesus Luz y Oportunidades, Cristina Maduro was our first choice.

Panamanian-born, Cristina brings to our team a much valued sense of order and vision.

We are thrilled to welcome her on board and wanted to thank every single donor for allowing us to make this great step forward and provide even more true opportunities to our beneficiaries.

2. Sharing Our Stories With The World

Over the years, we've found that press does a few things for Esperanza: the obvious is that it helps us form new relationships with new individuals who can help our cause.

The less obvious (although arguably more powerful) benefit of good press is that it lends itself to the reintegration process of our graduates. Recognition is important for individuals of all backgrounds, but it's especially helpful when you are working to reverse the harm you once caused to your community.

For these reasons, we're always appreciative of these sorts of opportunities:

  • Prevue Meetings: "The tour is led by former members of the notorious Ciudad de Dios street gang who now operate Fortaleza Tours within the district, following the intervention of the Esperanza Social Venture Club who work to integrate gang members into formal society."
  • Rickshaw Travel Partnership: "Once a hotbed of gang activity, this is now a thriving district of art, culture, and architecture. In order to preserve an element of human patrimony, Esperanza’s non-profit initiatives assure that young at-risk males get to take part in the neighborhood’s growth, by providing help with mental and physical health as well as coaching to enter the workforce."
  • Yahoo! Travel: "However, these tours are not so visitors can gawk at the poverty-stricken streets that still dominate the area — despite the massive gentrification of the last few years — but rather to highlight what the human spirit, when offered an alternative reality by way of education and hope, can do."

3. Results

Because the transformation process is a patient one, it's extremely exciting to begin to see concrete results from groups that we began with several years back. As we start off 2016, we celebrate the following statistics:

- 43 former gang members graduated

- 74% currently working

- 3 actually working in one business (Super Gourmet)

- 11 started their own businesses through the Esperanza Social Venture Club

When we ask ourselves internally "what good results look like?" the answer is often that if we can change the course of one young man's life, we have solved one community problem.

With these results and with your monthly support, we are more confident now than ever before, that we are moving in the right direction.

4. Gorgeous Photo Exhibition Featuring Esperanza Graduate

Sofia Verzbolovskis is a Panamanian photographer based in New York who recently spent several days getting to know Luis. Following him into and out of neighborhood buildings en route to Lava Auto Plaza Amador, Sofia was able to capture the essence of what makes Luis, his business, and the power of his transformation so unique. You can see all Sofia and Luis' photos here: A Day In The Life Of Luis Moreno.

Thanks again for your ever-lasting support.

And please know that every day when we go to work, we are appreciative of people like you who believe enough to stand beside us.


Summary: As 2015 comes to a close, Esperanza has a lot of wonderful news to share: all a direct result of your commitment to give Casco Viejo's at-risk young men a real opportunity to permanently integrate into their community.

We are currently in Phase II of our timeline, focusing on maintenance of individual and group successes. Now that all three groups have graduated, this phase is all about keeping new jobs, not doing drugs, and avoiding arrest. No matter how good an eight-week gang intervention program is, without serious follow-up by trained counselors and social workers, the change won't last long. So in a lot of ways, this phase is the least visible yet...but that doesn't mean fascinating things aren't happening every day:

1. Esperanza Social Venture Club Is Growing Up

While some graduates opt for traditional labor insertion in any one of our neighborhoods' various supporting businesses, others choose for the entrepreneurial route -- a natural fit considering the original impulses and personal strengths that inspired these young men to a high-risk lifestyle were strong and community-oriented in the first place. Upon entering the Social Venture Club, entrepreneurs are paired up with mentors who accompany them through the business development process. Esperanza has always had an inspiring group of neighbors and business leaders who volunteer their time to become mentors. But we never quite knew what characterized the most successful of those partnerships...

Until we commissioned an internal report by Costa Rican entrepreneurial expert Roy Retana Campos, to build a first-of-its-kind success framework for our unique mentorship program. Finally, the intangible aspects of what makes our community "tick" are beginning to come alive. And we believe the results of this study will have a place in history as Esperanza Social Venture Club, one of the world's most innovative "social impact funds," continues to mature. Just last month, we approved a second round of funding for one graduate and his seafood distribution company. Read MORE Here

2. Sharing Our Stories With The World

One of the unforeseen challenges of success with Esperanza has been our relationship with the media. While one might think that "any press is good press," we have found that nothing in quite so straightforward in the sensitive world in which we work. To streamline our interactions with the press, we have developed a Communications Department and are pleased to share our most recent published posts:

  • The Toronto Star: "In Panama, ex gang members lead tourists through what was once the toughest parts of town. Montenegro and the other Fortaleza members wish us well, having succeeded in showing us how the promise of hope is changing their world."
  • United Hemispheres: Entrepreneurs In The Hood: 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.
  • A Short Film by Pablo Garcia Saldana: Pablo felt passionate about contributing his time and talents in the form of a video. “I built and started to prove the 10,000 hour challenge; the number of  hours of practice needed to acquire mastery of a skill. But the experiment became more than just a goal, it became a way of life, a part of me.”

3. Our First True Fundraiser

As a non-profit organization in a country inconsistent with government funding, we are constantly thinking of new and innovative ways to financially support our work. In the same way Esperanza is not your everyday charity, our first fundraiser was rather unconventional as well.

The "Mar A Mesa (or Sea to Plate) Challenge" saw two celebrity chefs fly in from Spain to pair up with two Esperanza graduates in two days of sportfishing and food prep. The result? A gorgeous dinner hosted at the renowned Maito restaurant in downtown Panama City, where supporters enjoyed not just "socially conscious" food and cocktails, but a special sense of community: a common belief in solving things a different way. Click for PHOTOS...

We may repeat this frequently, but it's really important to know: Esperanza is incredibly 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.

This makes a big difference to them -- because something like this has never been done before -- as it does to our leadership and our volunteers.


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



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Organization Information

Fundacion Calicanto

Location: Panama City, Panama - Panama
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Keyes Hardin
Panama City, Panama

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