Dealing With Crime In Panama

Okay, I need to say a few words about crime here in Panama. Naturally one of the big questions people have is what the crime situation is like here. Yes, we have it, and yes, it’s growing, just like it is in the States.

Naturally crime is worse in the Capitol, but it’s a big city with the same problems all big cities have worldwide, so I’m not even going to get into what’s happening there other than to say that most of the violent crime there is associated with drugs and drug dealers since Panama is a trans-shipping site.

We have a growing crime problem here in Chiriquí Province, and that’s directly the result, I believe of two things…David (dahVEED) is the country’s SECOND LARGEST city and big city problems come along with it. Another contributing factor is Chiriquí Province has seen a huge influx of foreigners (mostly from the States and Canada) and while there doesn’t seem to be any animus towards us, the gringos (and I’m going to use that term for EVERYONE who isn’t a Panamanian) are generally richer than the natives and that naturally makes gringos TARGETS.

Crime is a major concern for the gringos here in the Republic. (When referring to “gringos” I mean anyone who comes here whose native tongue is not Spanish.)

Many people assume that because the doors and windows have bars on them crime must be running wild. Not really. While those barred doors and windows ARE crime prevention features it is also very much a “Latin” thing, too.

We in the expat community really only pay attention to crime when it strikes us or one of our own, but the majority of the victims of crime are the natives. We just don’t pay attention to it because we don’t read the Spanish-language newspapers or watch Spanish-language television broadcasts. We live in our own little bubble.

Recently there has been an increase in home invasion crimes and two expats have been shot as a result. One, a British woman, I happen to know slightly from Potrerillos Arriba. She very nearly died, spent several weeks in the hospital and isn’t completely out of the woods yet. The other recent shooting involved a a man who was shot twice but not nearly as seriously as the lady. As if getting shot ANYWHERE isn’t serious enough, right?

One thing I know is that the lady made herself a target for such a thing to happen.  She had a lovely house on probably an acre or more of lovingly maintained lawns and shrubbery. The home would be the envy of many people in the States. Now, everybody should be able to build a nice house on well-kept grounds and live happily ever after. . .in a perfect world. In the last decade gringos have poured into this country that, despite a rapidly growing first-world infrastructure  is essentially just getting out of being third-world. To some of the people here a wheelbarrow is as big a technological leap as a lunar rover was to the States. There are PLENTY of people living hand-to-mouth here though we don’t see them too often. Most are indigenous people who live up in the mountains in shanties made of split bamboo with rusting tin roofs, and you’d generally have to trek an hour or more to get to where they live. Out of sight, out of mind.

But there is also a growing sub-culture of thuggery here though, thankfully, they don’t walk around with their pants sagging down. The law here does NOT incarcerate minors under fourteen, releasing them to their parents even after committing the most horrendous crimes including murder. Enterprising Fagins are exploiting this fact and recruiting youngsters to actually commit the crimes. These gangs often roam around neighborhoods in taxis casing homes to break into and it doesn’t matter if anyone’s home, either.

So, how do I cope with all this? First of all, I DON’T live like so many of the gringos who expatriate here. I DON’T live up in what is often disparagingly referred to as “Gringolandia.” That is the Boquete region, Potrerillos which has a growing expatriate population or Volcan. For most of the time I’ve lived here it has been in Panamanian neighborhoods where I’m the only gringo and I live in a house similar to all my neighbors. Except for the fact that when locals see me I’m instantly recognizable as an expat I blend in.

And one takes precautions. During daylight hours my doors are open to allow the breezes to blow through the house. That’s where the bars come in handy. THOSE doors are ALWAYS locked.  No one is going to sneak in. While it is possible to own a gun here in Panama it is VERY HARD to get permission to own one. In fact, within the last month, a former chief of police in another provincial town was found guilty of having unauthorized weapons and sentenced to TEN YEARS IN PRISON. They take stuff like that very seriously here. That doesn’t mean I’m unprotected, though. I have a VERY LARGE, VERY SHARP machete close at hand and honestly I wouldn’t be afraid to use it on someone trying to get into my house uninvited.

So what would happen if someone broke in while I wasn’t home? Well, there really isn’t much for anyone to steal. I don’t own a television or a stereo system. My most valuable possession is my MacBook Air computer which I’m using to write this. I have a Sony camcorder and a nice Canon still camera and a bicycle. I’ve written down the serial numbers to all these things and sent them to myself via an email so no matter where I am, if I have access to a computer I can give the proper authorities the information they’d need should they find someone with my stuff.  Those are the GOOD things. I also have three dead H-P notebook computers that I didn’t throw away and also have the serial numbers for. Why do I still have them? They’re DECOYS.

When I was house sitting in Potrerillos Arriba, which DIDN’T have bars, I’d put my computer and cameras in the clothes dryer and cover them with a couple of towels. I figured any self-respecting robber isn’t going to check there for valuables. Here in Boquerón what I do when I know I’ll be away from the house for a couple of hours is to put the computer, the power cord and this cordless keyboard into a kitchen trash bag and put THAT into a bag of actual trash. If some crook finds it, more power to him. But I figure he’s going to find the dead notebooks, say, “Aha! Good score!” and be gone.

And that’s how I deal with things here.

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3 responses to “Dealing With Crime In Panama

  1. We were robbed right after we moved into our house and as the bars were being installed. We know who did it (the same ones who knew what windows had bars and which ones did not, if you get my drift). We now have 3 big dogs, bars on all windows and doors, cameras, motion lights, and wall/fencing with razor wire on the top. We also know our neighbors – very important. We don’t live in a gated community (thankfully) who have a lot of break-ins. Making yourself as an unattractive target is the best defense.

    Keep as low a profile as possible. Assimilate.

  2. There are some good tips here for those of us in the States, too. Emailing the serial numbers is a good one, and I have a dead laptop I was going to donate somewhere. I believe I’ll just keep that baby, and make use of it when I go away for any length of time.

    I don’t remember where I saw that tip about the serial numbers, but it’s a great one, especially when traveling. Should you get ripped off how are you going to verify anything without having done that?

    One of my brothers was a professional jazz musician in his younger days. (Getting back into it now he’s retired) Once in Colorado he had everything in his car ripped off. Completely emptied out which included a Haynes and a Powell flute each of which are custom-made and worth, literally, thousands of dollars. He got one of the flutes back simply because there are some honest people in this world. What happened was a man went to a pawn shop to buy his daughter a flute to start taking lessons with. (With which to take lessons, yah, yah, yah). The lady at the pawn shop had one she said she’d sell him for something like $250. The man said, “You really should call the police about this.”
    “No, no,” said the woman, I only paid $150 for it myself.”
    “No,” the honest man said, “You don’t understand. This flute is worth a couple of THOUSAND dollars. Obviously someone stole it and sold it to you.”

    My brother was lucky on two counts. One, the guy knew what he was looking at and two, he was honest. Most people who knew what a Haynes of a Powell were would have forked over the bucks and walked out the door chuckling. OR they wouldn’t have known at all what they were looking at.

    As far as the dead computers are concerned, I thing keeping them around as a decoy is great. Most burglars want to get in and out as fast as they can. They don’t want to spend a lot of time rummaging around. Like in the trash. They see the dead notebook and it’s “Ah Ha! Score! And they’re gone.

  3. Nice post and I agree with almost everything. My only beef would be that violent crime as been decreasing dramatically for 20 years in the U.S. not increasing like you highlighted in paragraph 1.

    Perhaps violent crime has decreased in the U.S. Haven’t been there in years. Don’t intend on going back, either, even to visit. I did read an interesting article in the last week about murders here in Panama in the last year. They’re down in Panamá and, believe it or not, Colón. However, murders in Chiriquí are UP!