Paso Canoas (Panama/Costa Rica Border)
June 03, 2016
Border Lines: Benny
“Hey man,” I hear in heavily accented English from the park bench next to me. “How’s it going?” He extends his arm and offers me a fist bump as a friendly gesture. I look over to make the dexterous connection and recognize the familiar face. It was Benny, a well-known ‘para-legal’ who works from a number of busy spots within the central plaza of Paso Canoas. This isn’t the first time that I’ve met Benny at these park benches. I actually had the pleasure of chatting with him for about 30 minutes when I crossed the border in June of 2013. To be honest, the legend of Benny is prolific in these parts of Central America.
I encountered one of these stories during my last trip to Boquete, Panama a few weeks ago. It was during lunch. Patricia—a German retiree—noticed that I was eating alone and decided to join me for conversation. “I am a perpetual tourist”, she explained bluntly to me. “Every 90 days I have to make my stamp run to renew my tourist visa. Last time I crossed into Costa Rica, the Panamanian customs wouldn’t let me back into the country. They wouldn’t let me in because of their new law that says you cannot reenter Panama with a tourist visa until 72 hours after receiving your exit stamp. They are trying to crack down on perpetual tourists, but it’s never going to work.” The disgruntled tone of her voice increased progressively as she crinkled her brow and unfurled her story. “I had to fucking jump through hoops to get them to revoke my exit stamp and let me back into the country…a fucking pain in my ass! Luckily, I met this guy named…” She paused to take a drag from her e-cigarette while she tried to recall his name. “He was a black guy, with dreads. And…he spoke really solid English.” I quickly jumped in: “Was his name Benny by any chance?” “Holy shit! Yeah! That was his name!” She boasted as a plume of vapor rolled out of her mouth. The sound of her voice had a familiar tinge to it. It was that raspy, aspirated kind of speaking that I am used to hearing when smokers try to talk while also exhaling lungfuls of smoke. “That’s crazy. I met him when I was passing through the border in 2013.” I replied out of shock that we actually knew the same guy in Paso Canoas. “For sure.” Patricia continued. “He was great. He helped me find everything I needed to get back across into Panama…spent three days working with me. He had a crazy life, you know. Did you know that in the 70s he ran drugs between New York City and Miami? Make sure you tell him that Patricia said ‘hi’ next time you see him.”
Benny tilted his head down slightly to make better eye contact with me over his dark sunglasses. This was his way of letting me know that he was diving into intense depths of his experiences. “Man, I got in some trouble a while back and came here after serving a year in Florida for selling heroin. I was working in Miami pounding the streets every day. I was bringing in as much as $1,500 each night, man.” A few of los Piratas gather around him with smiles on their faces; as if listening to campfire stories from their war veteran grandfather. It is clear to me that “Storytime with Benny” is a cherished social event among highway workers in Paso Canoas—something to pass the boredom of waiting for customers. “In March of 1969 they fucking busted me, man. Threw me in prison and told me they would let me go if I told them who my boss was. I was like ‘Fuck man. You got me. What the fuck else do you want.’ You know who was in prison with me that day?” He asked me rhetorically. “Jim Morrison. You know, that singer. It was the night that he got arrested for pulling his dick out and masturbating on stage. In the holding cell, he was just sitting there…singing that song: ‘Riders on the storm’”, Benny broke into a brief accented serenade of The Doors’ hit. “I saw a lot of people come through that prison while I was there. I saw Cassius Clay too. The police threw him in jail for three days for…” He struggled to remember the words in English. “…a speeding violation. A damn speeding violation. Fucking thieves.” He paused for a few seconds to take in the emotions that the story unleashed. He gave a quick chuckle— “Heh”—to bring himself back from the memory. “I have a girl and a daughter that still live in the States, that’s hard. We talk, but I don’t get to see them very often. Things were crazy when I was younger…you know. I didn’t want to get drafted during Vietnam, so I ran away from home when I was 17. That’s how I ended up running up and down the coast. Miami in the 60s and 70s. Whew, things were definitely different then.” Benny elicited his emotions through slight hand gestures and head movements, but his tone of voice remained relaxed no matter what the topic of talk.
Photo: The New York Times
The chain of conversation is intermittently broken as he playfully whistles at a familiar passerby, shakes hands with a good friend, or negotiates with an avocado hungry customer. Benny is what he refers to “a helper” or “ayudador” in Spanish. Selling avocados is just one of the many ways that he hustles to make money. He also considers himself a “tour guide” in that he assists stranded travelers get to their final location. These types of highway workers appear at each of the border crossings along Central America’s Pan-American Highway and play an important role in mitigating the confusion and unceasingly long waits that travelers often encounter when crossing international territories. I’ve heard them referred to as tramitadores (document processors), ayudadores (helpers), touts, ratas (rats), ladrones (thieves). But, in my research I call them ’para-legals’…although in a different vein than the paralegals that work in the law offices of the United States.
For me, ‘para-legal’ is a play on the root words para—meaning “alongside, next to, or outside of” and legal- meaning of or relating to the law. The para-legals of the Pan-American Highway earn their money in tips (propinas) by mediating the ephemeral relationships between border crossers, customs agents, state officials, and the material structure of the highway. Like a border shaman, their work requires them to navigate both the light (legal) and dark (illegal) worlds of the highway community. Most of the time, they simply assist border crossers (primarily tourists and truck drivers) in finding the appropriating government buildings, understanding the exit/entrance procedures of the customs offices, and completing required paperwork. Part of this work, however, also requires them to know how to bypass the law by understanding which customs agents will accept a bribe to “look the other way” during inspections or how to misrepresent information on documents; both techniques used to save valuable time passing through national borders. The para-legal is also a guide who can divulge information about where to find “essential things” within the community. They will point you towards the best vendors for cheap, quick food and drinks. They will direct you to the liveliest bars and restaurants. They will even tell you where to go if you want a good place to dance or need a place to sleep for the night. Of course, the underbelly of this knowledge is their familiarity with where to find the best drugs, sex workers, and other “illegal” items for which many highway users may be searching. It’s for these reasons that it is appropriate to use the term ‘para-legal’. At one moment they will facilitate customs procedures, but at the next they will slide behind them—thus working both alongside and outside of the law. While we could label their work as being both “legal” and “illegal”, it is not legality that calibrates their moral beacon, but the demands of the people who encounter the mobility barrier of the customs checkpoint…therefore being the means to generate tips and earn a livelihood.
Para-legal (not Benny) assisting a traveler
Benny explains to me the structure of his routine as he sits perched atop that concrete park bench. “It’s easy to see who could use some help because they have a lost, stupid look on their faces…like they are confused or scared.” His eyes scan the horizon as he looks for possible customers even as he tells me his story. “I usually say: ‘Hey, do you need to find the Costa Rica customs office? Did you already get your Panama exit stamp?’ Usually, they say ‘No. How do I do that.’ Then I will take them to get their stamp and help them through the rest of the process. After they get their stamps, I will ask them if they know where they are going next. Then I say things like ‘You should check out so and so beach’ or ‘You should visit so and so bar and restaurant’. Or, I will set them up with a taxi to take them to their next destination.” He wags his finger in the direction of Los Piratas that have crowded around Benny and I. “These guys will give me tips for finding them customers. It’s how a make most of my money. You remember Patricia? She was so nice…I love her…like a friend.” Benny’s tone of voice softens as he remembers Patricia. “I walked with her for three days to help her get through the 72 hour waiting period to reenter Panama. I set her up with a room and I was worried because she didn’t give me a tip and I was spending a lot of time helping her. On the third day, she took out a stack of Colones and gave me 30 thousand ($60 USD).” Benny grabs at his heart as a sign of endearment. “She is a sweetheart. Tell her I said ‘hi’ next time you go to Boquete.” Our conversation comes to a halt as a young taxi driver offers us a round of cigarettes—Benny obliging and myself respectfully declining. The spark of the cigarettes ignites fresh new round of stories…