Two Expats Survive Brutal Attack Near Playa Blanca
Sunday, November 01 2009 @ 10:46 PM UTC
Contributed by: Don Winner
A Man In The Road: Mike was driving the rental car. The couple had their suitcases in the trunk of the car and they turned off of the Inter American highway on the road that leads to the Playa Blanca resort and hotel. Approximately halfway between the highway and the hotel, Mike saw what looked like a man in the road. As he got closer he realized the man was standing in a peculiar but recognizable manner. "He was like in a military style stance, aiming a gun at us. I saw the gun and recognized the danger as I got closer, and I eventually stopped about 30 feet away from him." Mike's first thought was to just run the dude over - to turn him into a speed bump on the way to the hotel. "But Olga was with me and I was afraid the guy might start shooting so I just stopped the car." He looked in the rear view mirror and saw there was no one behind them, so he tried to reach down and put the car into reverse to get the hell out of there. He yelled at his wife Olga to "get down" and in his haste he accidentally jammed the transmission into Park and it got stuck there. The gunman opened fire as Mike was trying to shift the car from park into reverse.
Trying To Stop Them With Bullets: As Mike was trying to shift the transmission, the gunman moved around to the right or passenger's side of the vehicle and opened fire. He could have been trying to prevent Mike from shifting the vehicle and fleeing the scene because one of the bullets hit Mike in the right forearm, which he was using at the time to try to shift the car. Another two bullets struck him, one in the leg and another in the right hand. Another two bullets hit his wife who was sitting in the passenger's seat. Mike was eventually able to reach over with his left hand and jam the shifter into "drive" - the car sped away because he already had the accelerator jammed to the floor. They were able to quickly put some distance between themselves and the attacker, but eventually due to his injuries Mike lost control of the vehicle and it went off of the road and into a ditch, coming to rest by the side of the road. Not pretty but effective - they were hurt but alive, and now well away from the kill zone.
Help from Passers By: A truck from the Playa Blanca hotel came toward them from the direction of the hotel, and Mike got out of the vehicle and flagged them down to ask for help. Eventually another vehicle came up from behind, from the direction of the highway, and that person also stopped to render assistance. He made some cell phone calls to initiate an emergency response. Weak from loss of blood, Mike returned to sit in the car to wait for an ambulance. Eventually police and ambulances arrived and transported them to a hospital in Penonomé where they were stabilized. They were later flown to Panama City in a helicopter, due the severity of their injuries.
The Attackers Got Away: During the attack Mike said he thought he also saw one or two other people by the left side of the road. Someone said the attackers were on horseback, but Mike could not verify that. This was almost certainly a simple attempted armed robbery that went wrong. The National Police have been conducting operations in the area of Rio Hato in an attempt to identify and arrest the assailants.
High Ranking Visitors: Panama's Vice President Juan Carlos Varela went to the hospital to check on Mike and Olga's condition. He was also visited by the Director General of the Tourism Authority of Panama, Salomon Shamah. La Prensa had reported "two American tourists shot near the entrance to Playa Blanca" yesterday, so obviously the government of Panama is concerned about the bad press. After I left later in the afternoon Mike was also visited by a representative from the Consulate of the US embassy in Panama.
Progressing Well: Later this afternoon I received an update via telephone on Olga's condition. Her doctors now say that she's "progressing well" and she might even be released from the hospital in about a week, which is wonderful news, and a much better prognosis from what I heard earlier that morning.
Lessons Learned: First and foremost, Mike and Olga have apparently survived this brutal attack, and you can't argue with success. If Mike had simply come to a complete stop, kept his hands in a clearly visible position, and not tried to flee the area, then maybe (with a very strong emphasis on the maybe) they might have been able to get away from this assault as the simple victims of a robbery and not in the hospital, but of course there are no guarantees. In this kind of a roadside ambush there's a defined kill zone which is established by the attacker, who starts the engagement with the tactical initiative. The kill zone has an entrance and an exit, and you can either avoid the kill zone completely by recognizing it quickly and not going into it at all. Or, if you're already in it, then you can either blast through to the other side as soon as you recognize the threat, or exit the kill zone the way you came in by backing out or reversing direction. It all comes down to recognize and react (move!) In counter terrorism school they pound that into your head over and over and over again - recognize the threat and MOVE! Your life depends on it. Fighter pilots think in terms of energy, and Mike might have been able to slightly improve his position if he had been able to recognize, decide, and react slightly earlier (one way or the other.) As it was Mike eventually recognized the deadly threat, but he hit the brakes and came to a full stop only after the had closed the distance between him and the attacker to a point where his relatively inaccurate handgun would be effective. If Mike had been able to recognize the threat slightly sooner, he could have slammed on his brakes, and I mean a full and hard emergency stop, in order to bring the vehicle to a full stop very quickly, well short of the kill zone. In other words, if you're going to stop, then stop hard (right now.) Distance is your friend and with a handgun there's a huge difference between twenty feet and forty feet - even expert and highly trained marksmen have trouble hitting a moving target with a handgun at forty feet. Mike could have then done what he eventually tried to do, put the car into reverse, and backed up quickly to leave the danger zone in a hurry. A rapid but controlled hurry. Or he could have gone the other way. As he got closer to the gunman, close enough to actually see the gun and recognize the threat, he could have conserved the kinetic energy in his vehicle, stayed off of the brake completely and accelerate to drive through the threat area, driving over the potential attacker if necessary (or at the very least close enough to screw up his aim), and to continue accelerating to exit the kill zone as quickly as possible. But as it was Mike unintentionally surrendered the energy in his vehicle by hitting the brakes and coming to a stop in exactly the wrong place, at the end of the assailant's handgun. But what you have to do is make the call to either stop and backup or charge through the kill zone quickly - to commit and then follow through. Mike eventually drove through the kill zone, but only after the damage had been done. And before you jump my ass for "Sunday morning quarterbacking" Mike's actions, that is not my intent. Anyone who reads this website regularly knows that these kinds of incidents are opportunities for all of us to learn from the things that happen to others and to hopefully come away just that much better informed. Mike did his flat and level best in a life and death situation, and he should be commended for escaping with his life and that of his wife. The blame and guilt belongs to the attacker.
You Might Be A Target: Like it or not, the bad guys in Panama regularly and routinely target foreigners for robbery and assault. Quite simply they go where they think the money is. Maybe Mike and Olga were specifically targeted, but I doubt it. There's an outside chance that someone at the Coronado hotel might have known of their plans to change hotels from Coronado to Playa Blanca, but I doubt it. I think they were just randomly targeted because they were driving down the wrong road at the wrong time. The attackers could have just watched vehicles carrying non promising targets pass by, and then jump out to stop a car carrying plump and promising tourists. | believe that's what actually happened.
Copyright 2009 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.