The history of this port city is remarkable in that it has seen a series of booms and busts ever since it was built in the 1850s.
Although the isthmus had been used to transport merchandise for hundreds of years, a canal was still not a consideration and a railway was just an idea. It was the California Gold Rush that fueled the construction of the railway. People hungry for gold wanted an easier way to get to California and William Apsinwall decided to make it happen.
The city grew until 1885 when it was burned down in the Colombian Civil War and then burned again in 1915. In the late 1940s Colón was established as a Free Trade Zone and flourished for the next 25 years. There were political riots in the 1960s and since then, the city has since been in a steady state of decline, first begun by the riots then accelerated by the dictatorships of Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega which lasted from 1968 to 1985. The withdrawal of the U.S. military has further contributed to the city’s decline. Unemployment is about 50%. Poverty rates are even higher.
Panamanians are deeply troubled and frustrated by government refusal to acknowledge or support the city. We had an interesting conversation with a man who grew up in Colón. He is noticeably angry at what he sees as the government’s unwillingness to do anything to aid the city. He said, “they just don’t care.” When asked why, he said he didn’t know but it is clear that, “the government just doesn’t care.”
Because of the pervasive poverty, crime rates have risen. We were warned various times by Panamanians, tour guides and others who know Panama, that Colón is just too dangerous for tourists. One man said he wouldn’t even go there with a bullet proof vest!
The other troubling situation is the rapid destruction of the mangrove forests. Although the city is suffering, large companies are rapidly removing the mangroves, filling in the remaining swamps and constructing enormous storage facilities (bodegas) for all of the containers coming in on ships. Imagine miles of just Sam’s Club sized buildings.Although billions of dollars are coming and going through the port and its operations, none of it is reaching the people. They companies are not contributing to the city’s infrastructure, maintenance or renewal. They are not landscaping or building sidewalks so people can walk to work. The road to the bodegas barely has two lanes and no shoulder. There are frequent traffic jams. There is no consideration for the importance of the mangroves. There are no environmental groups rallying to preserve the mangroves and no political party is taking up the issue. They insist the container storage is economic recovery enough. Truly, it’s horrifying.
Considering the crime and poverty we were not to go to Colón unless we were escorted! We were able to contact with Dr. Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, the Director of Communications and Public Programs at Punta Galeta Marine Laboratory. He takes the train from Panama City to Colón every Friday.He provided an incredible narrative on his work in Galeta, the history of the Canal and offered some insights on the state of things in Colón. We got in and out of the city safe and sound. We didn’t get into the city at all. A Smithsonian employee picked us up at the train station and took us directly to Punta Galeta. We didn’t take any photos of the little that we saw.