FAQ: Is Panama a Safe Place to Live?
Thursday, January 06 2011 @ 03:10 PM EST
Contributed by: Don Winner
Question: Is Panama a safe place to live? Many Internet websites promoting Panama claim that the country is very safe, yet I often hear about violent crime on the news. How safe is Panama? Is it a safe place for me and my family?
(Update: This article was originally published on 2 August 2006, but I'm going to push it back to the top of the pile because of the recent spat of violent home invasion robberies in the Coronado area. Just ignore the parts of the article that refer to five year old stuff, like the election of Martin Torrijos, for example.)
Answer: This is a tough one. I've lived here for twenty years and have never been the victim of a violent crime. Any outside observer is going to receive mixed signals due to crossed purposes from information sources. The news media makes money and draws viewers or readers by reporting on violent crime (See: "If It Bleeds, It Leads...") so they have a tendency to over-report and place too much emphasis on crime. People and companies promoting Panama would like to convince you that Panama is a perfectly safe haven of tranquility, safety, and security. Both are wrong, which leaves the reader in the middle trying to pick fact and reality from a mixed offering of rose-colored fiction and blood-stained sensionalization. I'll try to sort it out for you... (more)
Short Answer Up Front: Use common sense, avoid dangerous areas, don't carry lots of cash or wear flashy jewelry and for the most part you will be fine. There are lots of things you can do, actions you can take, and decisions you can make that will either significantly enhance or degrade your level of personal safety and relative security. The short answer is that Panama for the most part is much safer than many large metropolitan areas of the United States and the world.
Recent Incidents Involving Expats: There have been a couple of incidents in recent weeks involving English speaking expatriates that have been targeted as victims for violent crime. A family had their home invaded and they were tied, beaten, and robbed. Another young lady was sexually assaulted after taking a cab from the Albrook Mall. I am currently trying to verify some information that was forwarded to be about one of these incidents and will only publish what I can confirm from the original source (one of the victims.)
Pet Peeve Warning! If you do any Internet research on crime and safety in Panama you will frequently see a reference to the mythical "Pinkerton Report." This report does not exist, it never has existed, and it is nothing more than a masterful job of spin and marketing. On 8 March 1999 Newsweek Magazine published an article entitled "Be Careful Out There" which primarily discussed the safety of tourists in Egypt during a period of increased terrorist attacks. Nancy Hanna, the owner of Panama Info, saw the article which contained a small graphic and managed to spin that into a full-blown safety and security report on Panama. I have spent a lot of time and effort to debunk this myth because it's simply not true. I know because I called Pinkerton and asked. If you do a simple Google search on the keywords "pinkerton + panama" you will receive approximately 85,200 returns. This entire issue has become a tremendous "pet peeve" for me and I still take time to blast emails to website owners who have not yet taken it down. Please join my campaign to rid the world of this urban legend by emailing this article to anyone you can find who is still making reference to the mythical "Pinkerton" report ask them to remove it from their website. Panama Info finally (after six years) modified slightly what they publish about the report in response to this series of articles:
- The Famous "Pinkerton Safety Rating" for Panama - 22 November 2005
- The "Pinkerton" Holy Grail - Original Source Article - 11 December 2005
- Drat - Foiled by B&W Microfiche and Water Spots... - 12 December 2005
Tourist Areas: The areas frequented by tourists are some of the safest places in the country and probably in the world. Criminals are smart and they avoid areas and situations where they are almost certain to get caught and thrown in prison. Of course there are exceptions but if you're coming here as a tourist and don't stray too far from the beaten path then you are exceptionally well protected. Tourists bring millions of dollars to Panama every year and the government spends additional assets and resources to protect these areas. There is even a branch of the National Police force called the "Tourist Police" that patrol these areas and wear distinctive armbands. These officers have receive additional and specific training on how to deal with tourists and their safety.
Am I Being Targeted? Yup. No doubt about it. So is everyone else in the entire country that's making any money. There is a lot of poverty in Panama and people simply get desperate. Panamanians are accustomed to the risk and have developed standards and habits that keep them safe for the most part. The trick is to learn and mimic those activity patterns. The simple fact is that you probably have much more money than the average Panamanian which makes you a target. If you can be easily identified as a foreigner then you have a greater chance of drawing attention so try to blend in.
"Say Hello To My Little Friend..."
The Drug Connection: Most violent crime in Panama is related in some way to drug trafficking. Cocaine, marijuana, and heroine are moved through Panama to consumption countries like the United States and Europe. The profits from those sales are transported back south to be laundered. A great majority of the murders and violent assaults are gangs fighting over turf or influence, drug traffickers ripping one another off, or paybacks for earlier hits. There is a very small chance that any of this type of crime will effect your life in Panama. These events show up in the headlines everyday and are a simple fact of life in Panama but will probably not impact your life at all.
Gang Wars: In recent months there has been an upsurge in gang and youth violent crime. Most of this activity is related to drug activity as well. One of the problems is that in Panama there is a hard line between youth and adult offenders. A person who is two days before his 18th birthday can blow someone away for $50 and the worst that can happen to him is seven years in jail. If he pulls the trigger as an adult he can get twenty years. Recently there was a gang related hit in the middle of Panama City. The shooter was a 15 year-old kid that pulled the trigger, and he was accompanied by another older gang member who came along to make sure the kid went through with it. Panama really needs to change the penal code to allow for youth offenders to be tried as adults to turn off this incentive which is negatively impacting poor youth in the country. Most of this inter-gang violence does not spill over onto normal citizens. This type of activity is heavily reported by the press and creates an artificial perception of violence. The gangs usually limit themselves to protecting their home turf and often act as hired guns (soldiers) for organized crime.
Organized Crime: Every kind of organized crime element you can possibly imagine operates in Panama in some form or the other. One of the strongest is the Chinese "mafia." They help smuggle illegal aliens into Panama, give them loans to establish a small business, and then "tax" them for the rest of their lives. Organized crime always traces its roots in money earned through illegal activity and there's no greater source of dirty money than what is produced from the drug trade. Drugs flow north and money flows south. It's common to see that someone was stopped at the airport trying to smuggle $50,000 in cash in the false bottom of a suitcase. Recent efforts and improvements in technology have made it practically impossible to wire illegal funds between banks so the cash is out there floating around. Again, this kind of criminal activity has a significant impact on Panama, but almost no impact on the individual law-abiding pensionado who has moved here from another country. And again, crime related to these activities are all over the news but will probably not effect your life in any way.
Governmental Corruption: Official and organized corruption came to Panama with the Spanish and has been here for more than 500 years. Corruption has been, is, and will be a part of the Panamanian culture and is a simple fact of life for those living here. The elements of power, influence, and official position provide leverage and can be used to either help or hinder any government process involving government officials. The bright side is that the current Panamanian president Martin Torrijos was elected on a "zero corruption" platform. Local corrupt officials are dropping like flies, and this issue recently made international headlines when the US Ambassador to Panama William Eaton criticized the Panamanian justice system's inability to do anything about white collar crime. So, there's some movement on this front. You might be impacted in some way when dealing with the "system" here in Panama, but for the most part it's not dangerous but rather simply a nuisance.
Home Security: There are lots of things you can do that will greatly enhance your personal safety and security at home. The greatest single impact on your security is related directly to where you choose to live. "Strength in numbers" is a fact of life and very often represents a trade-off between independence and individual freedoms and enhanced security. Some people could not stand the idea of living in a gated community, while others would not live in Panama without the additional security. It's a personal choice. The various options are presented here in descending order from most secure to least secure;
- Modern Apartment Buildings: Think of modern apartment buildings as vertical gated communities. The houses are simply stacked and the gate is the security guard in the lobby. There is usually controlled access to parking areas, cameras record the movements of residents and guests, and security guards know all of the residents and regular visitors. Guests are announced and buzzed through. Intercoms allow security and administration to communicate directly with residents. And, any criminal has to exit the area either by taking an elevator or going down the stairs. Individual apartments can be "hardened" to make them a harder nut to crack. These buildings are often located in areas that are some of the safest parts of the city. Modern apartment buildings are by far the safest option.
"Can I Help You, Sir?"
- Gated Communities: These types of residential communities offer most of the same levels of protection as an apartment building with two major differences. Now you have a yard but the trade-off is a significant increase in potential criminal access to your house. Apartment #30A is 200 feet in the air but house #30A is right there on the ground. Gated communities have a much larger perimeter to protect which is usually accomplished through guard patrols and electronic surveillance. Individual houses can be upgraded and hardened to improve the relative security. Gated communities are the next-safest option after apartment buildings.
Strength in Numbers
- Single Family Homes in an Organized Community: There is an organized and officially recognized "Neighborhood Watch" program in Panama. The responsible agency is the National Police working together with local mayor's offices and local representatives. Residents in neighborhoods are encouraged to organize against the threat of crime and the idea is "you watch my back and I'll watch yours." Each individual home owner installs an alarm bell that residents can activate if they see or hear something unusual or suspicious. According to the plan, if one resident activates their bell then all of the other residents in the area activate their bells as well (even if they don't know what's going on) and then everyone calls the police to sort things out. These programs can be very effective and they promote meetings and contact between neighbors for mutual benefit.
- Older Apartment Buildings: These offer greater protection because you are off the ground but they might only have a security guard at night. Intercoms might or might not work. The building probably won't have a functioning security alarm system, and fire alarm and support systems might be poorly maintained. Access to parking areas might not be controlled. These buildings are usually located in less secure areas of the city. Uninvited individuals can usually gain access by simply pressing all of the intercom buttons until someone just hits the "buzzer" and opens the front door. If you choose this option you should significantly upgrade, improve, and harden the security posture of your individual apartment unit because you're not getting much outside support.
- Individual Single Family Homes in an Unorganized Community: This option makes you responsible for your own security. You are only as protected as the strength of the layered security perimeter that you establish for yourself. You can choose to either leave the doors wide open and invite criminals in or you can add layers of security elements to make you the hardest nut to crack. Most importantly, the responsibility rests with the individual home owner. There is slight increase in security simply because you have neighbors but they are under no obligation to come to your aid. Chances are they don't know you but have probably seen you come and go. Not recommended.
"Strongly Individualistic Personality Traits"
- Individual Single Family Home in the Middle of Nowhere: You are practically on an island from a security point of view. If you are not at your house then criminals can take all day to defeat any physical or electronic layers of security you have installed. They can make all the noise they want because there's no one around to hear it. They can take their time because they simply position someone with a cell phone five miles down the road to act as a look-out. This is an exceptionally poor option from a security point of view but ranks high on independence and individuality. The two are usually in a trade-off. If you choose this kind of arrangement then you probably are the kind of person who likes a challenge. You can skip straight to the sections on "guns" and "dogs." Your neighbors are probably more worried about you than you are about them. Welcome to Panama, Bubba... I don't expect you'll be having any problems.
- Shared Living Arrangements: Anytime there are additional people living in your house or apartment then you are reducing your security posture. This includes live-in maids, roommates, or guests in a bed and breakfast. Anyone that has a key to your front door has already gotten past your outer security perimeter. Allowing someone (anyone) access to your home greatly degrades your security posture.
Individual Options: No matter where or how you decide to live you can improve and enhance the security for your individual home or unit. Often times the greatest valuable to be protected are the lives of your family members. Sometimes adding additional layers of security might seem like overkill, but it's "better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it." All of these elements can be added as necessary to any home or apartment;
- Physical Barriers: Understand that any physical barrier can eventually be overcome and defeated. The only thing you can do is force the bad guys to take more time and make more noise to get in. Thieves will cut through steel bars, bend zinc roof panels, break down doors, and do whatever else it takes to gain access. And you can bet they will find the weakest spot in your defenses to work on so you should identify that ahead of time and strengthen security at that point. Physical barriers include upgraded doors, improved locks and deadbolts, and bars on windows or over air conditioners. And don't forget that whatever is keeping thieves out is also preventing your escape in case of fire.
Bells and Whistles
- Electronic Defenses: Install a security system with external monitoring and panic buttons located in all of the bedrooms and the kitchen. The better systems will have a lesser false alarm rate, more options, and will generally be more accurate. You can use things like infra-red heat and movement sensors to cover open areas, hallways, and entrances. Ask for help in designing a system that will provide overlapping and multiple coverage zones. There are things such as audio sensors tuned specifically to detect the sound of breaking glass. Don't forget to put movement sensors in attics or crawl spaces above ceilings to detect anything coming through the roof. There are several companies in Panama City that can put together a top-of-the-line protection system for you.
Rex, the wonder dog...
- Watch Dog: A watchdog is any animal that will make noise, defend your home, and alert you to someone who is trying to break in. They are usually cowards at heart and will go nuts to let you know something scary is happening (so you can come and do something about it.) Rex the wonder dog falls into this category. He won't stop anyone physically but he's fine-tuned for unusual stuff. He's basically a walking, self-contained multi-sensored burglar alarm. But, he's a wimp.
Here, kitty kitty...
- Guard Dog: A completely different animal than the watch dog. They have the size, weight, power, and attitude to do something to physically deter an intruder. They might not make any noise when someone who is not supposed to be there enters the area primarily because they are considering a sneak attack. Owners of these kinds of animals have a responsibility to friends and neighbors to keep them under control. While any individual dog can be trained to be aggressive Pit bulls and Rottweilers are the most likely to attack someone, and the most likely victims are children. Keeping an aggressive and dangerous dog comes with a significant degree of responsibility and risk.
- Surveillance Camera Systems: These are only as good as the person who is sitting there watching the monitor. They work well in combination with an alarm or intercom system in that when someone is outside ringing the bell you can look and see who is there. The top shelf equipment has a "Pan, Tilt, and Zoom" (PTZ) capability that allows you control the camera remotely and to move it up and down, left and right, and to zoom in and out. These systems are often connected to a digital recording system that periodically records activity. Many cameras can be connected to one master control and recording unit, and the feeds from several cameras can be displayed on one monitor (split screen.)
- Safe, Vault, or Strongbox: My good friend Brett Mikkelson wrote this article about choosing a home safe. Think of safes as a final layer of physical security. They will simply slow down a thief and cause them to make more noise and time to get to the contents, but if they really want to and have the time then any safe can be defeated. Another option is to have two safes in your house, one that's obvious and another that's hidden. In a home invasion scenario you might be forced to open the "public" safe and hand over the contents but the hidden safe might go undiscovered. Small safes are excellent for keeping cash and valuables from being stolen by maids and other temporary employees that might have access to your home.
Personal Security: Personal security is different from home security in that these elements apply to your individual person no matter where you are. You should modify your actions in response to your surroundings.
- Level of Alertness: One of the most important things you can do is simply raise your level of personal and situational awareness. Most victims of crime are caught by surprise and "forewarned is forearmed." I mean, if you know someone is going to try to pick your pocket then you would stop them from doing it, right? Sometimes just by appearing that you are alert and aware potential thieves will pass you by and look for a more distracted victim. Scams and cons are all based on getting you to reduce your level of distrust and to create a sense of security. If you hear that "little voice" pay attention to it - most of the time it's being caused by something that you will figure out later.
- Non-Lethal Self Defense Options: There are a whole array of non-lethal self defense devices you can buy which can increase your options in a confrontation. Things like small pepper spray canisters or tazers can be an incredible deterrent to a random thief who thought you were easy pickings. Just presenting the device might buy you the split-second you need to break from the confrontation and get away.
- Martial Arts: Standing to fight is usually not a good idea unless you've been trained. In a physical confrontation the goal is to defend yourself, stop an assault, and to disable or injure your attacker to the point where you can break contact and get away. Most martial arts in Hollywood movies is about as real as professional wrestling. It simply does not happen that way in real life. But still, there's a lot of value in having some basic self-defense training even if you don't plan to dedicate a large part of your life to mastering a martial art. More than anything else a level of self defense training will raise your confidence level in a confrontation.
- Guns for Personal Self Defense: I do not recommend that individuals carry handguns in Panama for self defense. It is relatively easy to get a carry permit, but most people do not have the required level of training, practice, and experience required to wield a lethal weapon in a public place. There are simply too many ways in which a confrontation can quickly escalate and get out of control. Leave the guns at home. And if you are going to buy a weapon for self-defense then I would recommend a .12 gauge shotgun. You are much more likely to be effective with a shotgun than a handgun or rifle.
Home Invasion Scenario: A home invasion scenario is different because the criminals want you to be there so they can rip you off (personally), take your stuff, get you to open safes, etc. Home invasions are completely different than a burglary and require a different mindset to confront.
- Shrinking Security Perimeter: If you have things established correctly anyone who wants to invade your home will face a multi-layer security perimeter consisting of a combination of physical barriers, electronic alarms, and four-legged noise makers. While your physical barriers are buying time, gather your loved ones and retreat to your sanctuary. You are now facing a shrinking security perimeter scenario and have limited time.
- Sound the Alarm: You should be able to hit two panic buttons in the master bedroom at this point, one for the alarm system and one for the neighborhood watch system. The people monitoring your alarm system will call for help and so will the neighbors. Now there should be at least two alarms sounding, a siren from the alarm system and a big metal bell for the neighborhood watch. Right now the bad guys are probably scrambling to get in their Tercel to run away, but let's assume for a minute that they are exceptionally determined.
- Take Shelter: I recommend you pick one last door as your sanctuary. In Panama the closet in the master bedroom usually makes a good choice but depending on the layout of your home there might be something obvious for your situation. When the alarm sounds all family members (according to plan) head to the sanctuary. When everyone is inside, bar the door. Here's your last chance to buy time with a physical barrier. I suggest surprising the bad guys with a steel security door at this point, or at the very least a solid wood door with a heavy lock. In any case, upgrade the door from the hollow piece of thin plywood that's probably there now. It might be the best $50 you ever spent.
- Communications: You want to have a phone extension installed in your sanctuary so you can call the police from inside. You also want to have your cell phone with you in case these really determined bad guys managed to cut your phone lines (unlikely, but possible.) In Panama the number to dial in an emergency is 104. Forget nine-one-one until you are back in the states because it does not work here.
- How's Your Spanish? Excellent. So far everything is going according to plan but now you find yourself on the phone with a mid-to-low ranking Panamanian police officer working the mid-shift who does not speak a word of English. Let's also assume you are a little excited at this point. You should have a prepared cheat-sheet next to the phone with all of the things you can think of that you might want to be able to say to that guy written out in Spanish.
- Backed Into a Corner: If the bad guys are still coming, the police have not arrived yet, and they manage to get through your last physical barrier then they have left you no choice. Jack a round into your Mossberg pump-action .12 gauge shotgun and be prepared to use it. If you have done everything right then the chances you'll ever get to this point are exceptionally slim. But in the end you never want to run out of options.
- Stay Put! Wait until you are positive that the police have arrive and the bad guys are gone before opening the door. Give the police time to sweep your home before you come out. It's their job to catch bad guys, not yours. When you do (finally) come out, search the house again with them.
Moving Target Alert: Obviously the security situation in Panama can change significantly on relatively short notice. This is especially true with regards to short term events such as demonstrations, natural disasters, or crime sprees.
The "Work In Progress" Disclaimer: I've been working on this all day and my eyes are getting crossed. I think I'm just going to publish it and wait for feedback. If I missed anything please let me know via email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll make the corrections. Suggestions, additions, add-ons, etc. are always welcomed.
Related Links: These external links are related to this issue:
- FAQ: Are Taxis Safe in Panama?
- Safety Warning - Use of Taxi's and Home Security
- Security Update – Incidents involving foreigners in Panama City
- Canadian Expat Escapes Death in High Rise Fire
Summary: Panama is a very safe place to live. Most of the personal security advice in this article applies to every large city in the world, and not much of this is Panama-specific. Safety and security are relative to, and are dependent upon your individual actions and decisions. Just as true - no one is more responsible for your personal safety and security than you. Your actions (or failure to act) to protect yourself and your loved ones determine how "safe" you are, in Panama or anywhere else.
By: Don Winner, Panama-guide.com, Copyright 2006. Feel free to use anything that appears in this article as long as you give credit to the author and link-back to this article. Other than that, spread it around (please.) And finally, as Newsweek would say, "Be Careful Out There..."