Home Invasion Robberies, Safety, and Security in Panama
Wednesday, October 08 2008 @ 09:43 am EDT
Contributed by: Don Winner
By DON WINNER for Panama-Guide.com - Last night my phone rang, and a friend on the other end of the line started the conversation with "another home invasion robbery?!?!" Yup, sure enough. Anyone with money is being actively targeted by armed thieves, and just by being a foreigner then you are automatically perceived to be relatively "rich" when compared to your Panamanian counterparts. Each successive robbery adds to our growing knowledge base of lessons learned, and by now you should be able to make yourself safe enough to be protected in almost any situation. Over the years I've learned that the victims of these crimes usually commit at least one or more basic mistakes that contributed to their becoming the target for attack. While there's no value in blaming the victim, there certainly is value in learning from the prior mistakes of others and making changes in the way you do things as you go about your daily life significantly upgrade your relative security posture. (more)
I've Written This Article Before: First of all, please go back and read this article which I wrote and published on 2 August 2006:
That About Covers It: In reality that article pretty much covers the subject fairly well. Not all that much has changed in the past two years really, except that now there are more English speaking expatriates living in Panama. There have been several mini "rashes" of home invasions that tend to be clustered geographically. For example awhile ago there was a whole string of these up near the Pacific beach area and along the road going down to Arenosa.
Single Family Home vs. Apartment: There's no doubt about it - residents living in a single family home are much more at risk of being the victims of a home invasion robbery than residents of an apartment building. The reasons are obvious. On the ground the assailants can use public assess roads to get as far as your security perimeter fence without raising suspicions. Most apartment buildings or condominium complexes have a security guard or single access point making it harder for five armed men to get to the front door unchallenged. Apartment buildings offer a level of joint or shared responsibility for security in that the monthly maintenance fee pays for the security guard downstairs. And finally, if someone comes banging on your door and yelling "where's the money" there's a good chance they will alert the neighbors who live on the same floor. Apartment buildings are simply safer.
Gated Communities: Many foreigners who talk about moving to Panama often eschew gated communities. They say they would prefer to mix and mingle with their Panamanian counterparts and don't want to live behind a wall or a fence. That's fine, but there's no doubt that gated communities exist for a reason, and the reason is that the people living in those communities are the most likely to be targeted for an armed home invasion robbery. As a foreigner you have a big, fat target painted on your back the minute you get off of the plane at Tocumen airport. Most of the real estate projects and developments have taken the safety and security of their residents into consideration in their planning, so be sure to look for and to ask about those elements when making your choice. You don't have to live like a scared cat but at the same time you don't want to invite trouble either.
Lot's Of Valuables At Home: Banks exist for a reason. They have great big metal boxes called "safes" - and those things get their names by being safe places to put your valuable stuff. There have been several armed home invasion robberies targeting English speaking expatriates in which the assailants were able to get away with many thousands of dollars in cash, jewelry, and other valuables. I'm sorry, but keeping more than $60,000 dollars worth of gold bullion under your bed in Panama is so unbelievably stupid that I don't know where to start (hey, it actually happened.) OK, so the world is going to end and you don't trust the banks, I got it. Do you trust the idea that some young Panamanian punk with a gun will shoot you for your money? Keeping large amounts of cash or valuables in your house is the fastest and easiest way to get targeted for a home invasion robbery.
Home Safe: Most of us have a little home safe, and it's probably in the walk-in closet of your master bedroom. These are really only good for limiting petty theft around the house on the part of domestic employees and random passers-through. The best way to handle this is to tell your maid that you've been ripped off in the past by an earlier maid and no offense, but you simply lock your wallet up in there while you're in the shower. Show her that besides your passport the safe is basically empty. Just the fact that a home safe exists is enough to get imaginations reeling sometimes.
Pay Your Bills Electronically: You can open an account with Banco General, for example, and pay all of your monthly bills electronically through the Internet. Besides being faster and easier, you don't have to carry wads of cash down to the power company to pay monthly bills. Use debit cards or credit cards to fill up your gas tank. Simply work to find ways to carry as little cash as necessary. If you always have a wad of bills in your pocket then sooner or later someone might notice and target you.
Be The Hardest Nut: There are more than enough bad guys out there, and they are always looking for someone to go after. You want to make yourself the hardest nut on the block - it they look at you and your situation you want them to just keep right on going to the next guy. You want to fall into the category of "not worth it" and you want to approach that problem from both sides. It's "not worth it" for the bad guys because you're too hard to get too, and you're also "not worth it" because there's nothing there to steal.
Here They Come: What do you do if you hear that noise in the middle of the night and you realize someone is breaking in? First of all, hopefully you can retreat to behind a solid door and notify the authorities via phone or cell phone. Hopefully you've already hit the panic button on your alarm system and there's a siren screaming. But what if you have blown off all of the good advice and you've gotten caught, and you are now staring at the end of a handgun? Forget about your cash, jewelry, or other valuables - the most valuable things you have are your life and health. Don't even consider standing your ground to fight unless you're backed into a corner with no where else to go, and you're convinced that if you don't fight then you will die. If the assailants breech your security perimeters and have accessed the interior of your home then capitulate and cooperate. Don't look at their faces or make any kind of threatening act or gesture. Give them what they want and hope they go away. Try to stay as calm as possible.
Panama Is Still Relatively Safe: There are about 3.3 million people living in the Republic of Panama, and so far in 2008 there have been 420 murders, mostly related to drug trafficking and organized crime. There are about 30,000 people living in my hometown back in the United States, and there have been four murders in that town this year. Here's an article showing the relative rates of murders per 100,000 population. Most of the murders and violent crime activity in Panama is directly related to the tons of cocaine that flow through this country every year, and for the most part that violence misses the members of the English speaking expatriate community. The Panamanian authorities are doing what they can to combat this escalating crime wave but it's an ongoing battle. There have been 1.5 murders per day in Panama so far this year.
More Expats Means More Crime: There are more and more English speaking expatriates moving to Panama every day. Until very recently it has been exceptionally unusual for a "gringo" to be murdered for almost any reason. One exception was Jill Canganelli who was abducted from her home on Clayton in June 2004 by Marlon Enrique Hunter Dawkins who kidnapped her, shot and killed her and left her body on the side of the road near Gamboa. Hunter Dawkins was sentenced to 20 years in prison for this crime on 19 May 2008 by Panama's Second Superior Tribunal, the maximum allowed under Panamanian law at the time. This year on 12 September 2008 Kim Crofts was shot and killed in his home in Bocas del Toro by a gang who thought he had a large sum of money in his house. Then on 21 September retired US Army SFC Alfredo Delgado, a former MP with the 549th MP Company on Fort Clayton was shot and killed by armed intruders in his home. Reportedly the assailants also were operating under the belief that Delgado had a large amount of money in his home.
Theft is Common - Murder Is Rare: It's relatively common for gringos to be targeted for some kind of petty theft while in Panama. Some who are more unfortunate have major valuables stolen, like a car or something. When gringos are the victims of a home invasion robbery the most common scenario involves theft, threats, holding the family at gunpoint, and usually the man of the house is hit or beaten in some way. But, normally no one dies in these assaults. The two cases this year have been the exception to the rule.
Continue to Live and Learn: Every time you read one of these articles you should use these as reminder to get motivated to do something (anything) to improve or upgrade your personal home security situation. Believe me, I don't want to be writing about you next. Put in that alarm, join the neighborhood watch program, upgrade that weak door - whatever. Just do it now. The worst enemy people face is procrastination. Stop putting it off and get to work.
Christmas Is Coming: Statistically speaking there is always a jump in criminal activity in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Baby needs a new pair of shoes and the money to buy those just might be in your wallet. It's October now so there's plenty of time to get your act together. As if you needed more motivation...
Copyright 2008 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.