Panama 2010 Crime & Safety Report
Wednesday, March 31 2010 @ 08:51 am EDT
Contributed by: Don Winner
The use of weapons, such as handguns and knives, in the commission of street robberies and other non-drug related crimes are common. However, gratuitous violence is uncommon as long as victims comply with the criminals demands. Sexual assaults of female victims during a robberies or home invasions have occurred, although anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that it does not occur frequently. Home burglaries do appear to be on the rise, especially in the more affluent neighborhoods, which have traditionally been unaffected. Such burglaries tend to happen at times when it is less likely that the resident will be home, as the thieves are focused on stealing property and tend to avoid violent confrontations.
Express kidnappings are also a source of concern for personnel moving about the city. This type of kidnapping involves armed robbers who approach a victim either on foot or when stopped in a car. The robbers then force the victim to accompany them to one ATM machine after another until the victim’s account is depleted. Historically victims are released a short time later, unharmed. In addition to violent crimes, various types of financial schemes have been reported. The most common scheme is unauthorized use of credit cards, either by a clerk who inflates the charge of sale or they may skim the information and record the number for later illegal use. Visitors in Panama should pay close attention to credit card receipts before signing them and be very observant when handing someone a credit card.
In addition, the Regional Security Officer (RSO) receives reports of individuals being drugged while at a bar and then robbed of their belongings. Sometimes victims are led back to their hotel rooms so more property can be stolen. The best way to avoid this type of trap is to watch when drinks are poured, never except a drink from a stranger, and do not leave drinks unattended.
Police continue to conduct vehicle checkpoints at key intersections in the city in an effort to raise visibility and hamper criminal’s movements. The high crime areas in and around Panama City are El Chorrillos, San Miguel, Santa Ana, Cabo Verde, Curundu, Veracruz Beach, Santa Librada, Rio Abajo, San Miguelito, Panama Viejo, and the Madden Dam Overlook. Despite improved policing and greater street visibility during business hours, crime continues to be a problem.
The threat of kidnapping for ransom is an ongoing concern in Panama due to the presence of the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FARC primarily operates in the Darien Province, which is located along the Colombian border. However, the FARC has been known to run operations in other parts of Panama, including Panama City. The motives of FARC members are financial rather than ideological. Therefore, they target individuals who are wealthy or capable of paying a ransom. There are travel restrictions placed on U.S. government officials for the Darien and San Blas regions. American business travelers and tourists are encouraged to read the safety and security section of the U.S. Department of State’s Consular Information Sheet for Panama and, in particular, the portion regarding travel to the eastern border areas of the country.
Driving is one of the most dangerous activities for U.S. citizens overseas, as it is often hazardous and difficult due to heavy traffic, undisciplined driving habits, poorly maintained streets, and a shortage of effective signs and traffic signals. Auto insurance is mandatory although many drivers are uninsured. Public transportation should be used with caution, especially the local city buses found in Panama City, called Diablo Rojo or "Red Devils". Taxicabs are the preferred form of public transportation, especially radio dispatched taxis. Travelers are advised to never get into a cab that is already occupied, never let yourself be directed to a particular taxi or taxi stand by a helpful stranger, and instruct the driver to not stop and pick up other passengers along the way.
Panama has experienced regular demonstrations throughout the year by a number of groups, to include labor unions, student and teacher organizations, and other Panamanian citizens. The majority of the demonstrations have focused on worker safety, rights, and benefits. There have been other demonstrations that were more politically motivated, such as the anniversary of the invasion of Panama.
Public protests tend to fall into two categories: organized marches and fixed demonstrations. Organized marches have drawn approximately 2,000 to 3,000 people and follow well-established routes in the center of the city near parks and centers of local government. In general, there is a good deal of public notice in the press, local publications, and handbills announcing the reason for the march, the organizers, and the timing.
Fixed demonstrations can be either well organized or occur with little advanced warning. These demonstrations are generally located at major intersections so the demonstration can have the biggest impact on traffic that will, in turn, bring more attention to the demonstrators' cause.
Public protests are generally non-violent although the protest can turn violent at a moment’s notice. The Panamanian police tend to take a passive approach toward demonstrations and generally let them run their course without much interference, even when the demonstration causes traffic congestion. The police will step in to break up a demonstration using tear gas and force if the demonstration becomes too large or too disruptive. Protesters do not generally target U.S. citizens, but visitors are warned to stay away from protests and marches, as there is always danger in being caught in the middle of rival protests or police action to break up a demonstration.
Panama's strategic location between Central and South America gives it an advantage in the world of trade. Unfortunately, this same strategic benefit also lies at the heart of Panama's biggest problems: drug trafficking, smuggling of fraudulent and counterfeit merchandise, and trafficking in persons. Corruption is an ever-present problem, and the vast amounts of dollars from the shipment of drugs and other merchandise fuel much of Panama's crime problems. Panama's land and maritime borders are vulnerable and are routinely penetrated by smugglers. In addition to these man-made problems, Panama experiences earthquakes because there are geological fault lines that run through the country. Historically, most of these earthquakes have been near the western border area or in the ocean. However, in 2009 Panama City did have an earthquake that registered 6.0 on the Richter scale. Damage to the city was minor, but it is a good reminder that larger and more devastating earthquakes are possible.
The Panamanian National Police (PNP) have tourism police to deal with crimes against tourists and foreigners. The PNP have substations located in all the major regions in Panama and numerous offices located in Panama City. Their performance and responsiveness to incidents involving Americans has been good. The main police number is 104; however, whether or not the operator speaks English is uncertain and most police officers speak very little English.
Incidents of police harassment of foreigners for bribes are uncommon. If harrassment does occur, the best course of action is to refuse and if they persist then you should request to speak with their supervisor. A traffic accident is one of the more common areas where U.S. citizens may come into contact with the police. It is common local practice for drivers to leave the cars in the roadway after an accident and to wait for the police, rather than move them off to the side of the road. Drivers should stay at the scene and wait for the arrival of the police. If travelers are victims of a crime, they will need to go to the local Directorate Investigative Judicial (DIJ) office to lodge an official complaint or “denuncia.”
Panama City has excellent trauma hospitals; however, most other communities have more limited services, facilities, and clinics. People are expected to pay for medical services with cash at the time of the service; however, some hospitals accept U.S. insurance cards with a deposit payment. Hospitals will accept international credit cards. Ambulance service outside the urban centers is non-existent. Air ambulance support is from the U.S. For medical emergencies call 911 and fire emergencies call 103.
U.S. citizens should be sure to register with U.S. Embassy Panama City’s Consular Affairs section if planning to be in Panama for an extended time. The Consular Affairs section also provides notifications and warnings to U.S. citizens in country. The embassy's main number is +507-207-7000, and the Consular Affairs main number is +507-207-7332. For non-consular, after hours emergencies call the U.S. Marine Guard Post One at +507-207-7200, the Regional Security Officer's number is +507-207-7160.
There is an active OSAC Country Council in Panama City. Those interested in attending meetings may contact the Regional Security Officer at +507-207-7160.