Crime On The Increase

Having just returned from Panama City, I have some thoughts that I would like to share. Since I would like to keep the primary post about my trip positive and upbeat, I decided to write this part as a stand-alone piece, so as to not corrupt the trip narration portion.

I have to admit that I hate going to Panama City. This trip, I drove and just parked the car in a secure area with a guard. Traffic has definitely increased in Panama City, since I moved to Panama. There is no way I want to drive in Panama City traffic. Unless you do it on a daily basis, you are taking your life in your own hands. Even if you do drive on a daily basis you are taking your life in your own hands.

I was talking to a Panama City resident and I was saying that you need to drive in Panama City everyday to feel reasonably secure. Wherever you are going, you need to know multiple ways to get to the destination. You never know when there will be a protest or accident or some other reason that will prevent you from taking a primary route to where you want to go.

To complicate things more, some streets have three hours in the morning where the street is one-way in one direction. Then in the evening, there is a three hour period when the street is one-way in the other direction. The rest of the time the street is two way. There is no indication on the streets and only a local would know this. There is no organized transition from one direction to the other. People just look at their watch and based on the time, they go one way or the other. What happens if your watch is a few minutes fast or slow? You will likely be going against traffic.

I talked to a local that had an accident just because of that. He was at a corner of one of those streets and looked to the left and saw cars coming. It was right around the time of direction change. Since he saw cars going one way, he turned the other direction and hit a car coming from that direction. It is just that easy.

Riding in a cab is my preferred option. However, this has become more dangerous as well. The crime rate, has increased during the current administration by an enormous amount. Many crimes occur in cabs. Now I am not saying that all cab drivers are involved, but some are. Many Panamanians will not take a cab, if they are not with a driver they know. That is a warning to tourists and foreigners.

Many people are being robbed after leaving the airport and are going into the city. Many of these passengers have declared bringing money into the country. Now how do the thieves know to pull over a certain car that has money unless someone that read the declaration called the robbers?

Most people drive in Panama with their windows up and the doors locked. I try to never take a taxi that is driving with the windows rolled down. I always have my camera and if you pull up to an intersection, it is easy for someone to run by the car, reach in and grab a camera or purse. The taxi driver never has anything of value in the car so he has no vested interest in your safety.

I was told by one of my hosts that in November, the El Rey on Calle 50 has 35 cars stolen from the parking lot in a 2 hour period. They got into the cars by preventing the cars from being locked. As the owner was walking away from the car, and before he has pressed the lock button on his key to lock the car and arm the alarm, the thief would be walking on the other side of the car and gently open the door on the right side. Then when the owner did press the button and thought he secured the car, the locking mechanism would not activate because a door was ajar. Most shoppers are in an El Rey for at least 20 to 30 minutes or more and that is plenty of time to take the car.

To make it even worse, this El Rey is less than 50 yards from the police station. The person that told me said he had been told of these robberies by both a policeman and an insurance agent who had had claims filed.

Yes, there is no question in my mind that crime in Panama and specifically Panama City is out of control. It is much worse than under the previous administration. Most new presidents come into office with far less money than they leave office with. If they spent more time working for the people that elected them, instead of lining their pockets, Panama would be a better place. That can be said for the US elected officials as well.

The next president had better take action on reducing crime. Laws for prosecuting crime have become lax during this administration and people are on the street that should be behind bars. If the next president doesn’t change this, many of the skyscrapers that are in the process of being built will wind up being empty. These buildings will become prisons for the owners of the apartments. People will be more afraid to walk the streets and even get into cabs. The valuation of these investments will fall.

Unfortunately, crime is moving to other parts of Panama as well. Just look at the recent home invasion in Boqueron.

I feel certain that there is more of this going on than people know about. To have it published would have a negative effect on property values. I am more concerned in peoples lives than property values. If people can move here and live comfortably and safely, then property values will increase and everyone’s lives will be better. That will include Panamanians as well as foreigners.

I was at two different residences while I was in Panama City. One was on a third floor and one was on the second floor. Both have added extra security measures during the last year. Both had added iron gates that could be locked outside of the main door and one was in the process of adding an alarm system. Both of these residences were in the better part of San Fransisco.

While I can’t vote and express my opinion about the elections that will occur in Panama, I can hope that the Panamanians that can, realize that they need to hold their elected officials accountable for making Panama a safe place to live in and to visit. My wish for 2009 is for action against the growing crime rate to be a top priority.

32 thoughts on “Crime On The Increase

  1. A very interesting piece, Don.
    I have some anecdotal evidence to add. Last month a couple I have known for 10 years moved their dairy farming operation from Costa Rica to a place not far from Boqueron. They can get a much better price for milk here. The night they arrived, the house was burgled; a new laptop and a music player were taken.
    Last week I was up in Boquete and was told that robberies are on the increase – even in Valle Escondido.
    Part of the problem is that many newcomers from the North are used to leaving their houses unlocked. I don’t think that is possible in any Third World country; it’s simply a question of common sense.
    I was burgled several times in Costa Rica. I learned to live with bars on the windows and alarms, even sensors in the rooms that were activated when I went to bed. Having to do that sucks but I just feel it is part of the price you have to pay for living here.
    I hate hearing about these terrible incidents but people do need to take precautions and become more security conscious.

    Welcome home,


  2. Don,
    Thanks for all your work & the blog. I traveled to PC 11 times in 2008, did not hear anything about an the problems coming from the airport, have never had a problem in PC but then I spent 5 years living in North Philadelphia so I am always aware of my surroundings and try not to do stupid things.

    Theft will probably only get worse as the global economy slows down and people become a little more desperate. Gringos look to be an easy target as they all are perceived to have money, which is not always the case.

    Mi novia lives just outside David, I am going to help her build a small house, however it is within a few minutes of her parents and sister & brothers. It helps to have extensive family in the area to look out after each other. Usually the bad guys are locals and will take easy pickings, if they know there are a number of people watching out for each other and there may be retribution they most likely move on to an easier target.
    At least that is my thinking. Besides the town she is in is not a hot bed for gringos.

  3. Hi Chuck. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

    You are correct. It pays to have locals that care about you and are looking out for you.

  4. Welcome back Don,
    Some friends of ours who own a cattle farm about 15 km west of Concepcion have been robbed 3 times in the last year. Once when no one was home. Lots of damage and lots of things stolen. Once when they were home sleeping. Theft was outside from a storage trailer. And the last time was 2 days after they had left for the US the first of Dec. Their night watchman was stabbed 3 times but I believe he is ok now.

    We have tried to get a street light installed at the entrance of our farm since last March when the electric company agreed they would do it. I think it will happen any day now. 😉

    See you in 3 weeks.

  5. Hi Ron. It is good to be home. Thanks for adding that information. Maybe if there is more focus on the growing problem, someone will have to take action. Lets just isn’t someone shooting the messenger. 🙂

  6. Crime in Panama will rise like a phoenix from the ash. Increased tourists, a distressed real estate sector, corruption, a widened income gap: the future for Panama City in this matter is bleak and I don’t think any of Panama’s politicos are visionary enough to particularly care.

    Oppositely, I would like to comment that my particular neighborhood of Casco Viejo, the dangerous and perilous Casco Viejo, has had little to no crime over the past year (a giant leap in the right direction from years past). The petty crime against tourists you hear about in Cangrejo, the drug runners gunned down in Obarrio, the home invasions in Clayton: I would argue that the tourist zone in Casco Viejo (10th street and below) is the safest place wander about aimlessly in Panama City right now. Police presence makes me feel safe, traffic is rarely if ever an issue, and not to mention, dangerous flooding nor earthquakes are legitimate concerns. – Matt

  7. I’m really sorry to read this entry, but I have to agree with all of it.
    There is so much to enjoy about Panama that there is a temptation to dismiss or under estimate the problems. They are there.

    We spent almost 3 years living in Paitilla and during that time the “feel” of the city changed a lot and by the end we were no where near as comfortable walking around as we were when we first arrived. And I think you’re right that the true state of things is probably a lot worse than any gringo knows…

  8. This is in regard to a burglary in Volcan. My employee Jose told me this morning that over the week end professional thieves broke into the Casa Empenada (the little jewelery store/pawn shop near Super Kinara). Apparently there are people living above the store. Nobody heard anything. The thieves were very professional and removed both door locks (including the lock on an iron gate) without making a sound. According to Jose, the thieves took everything, including a computer and all the jewelry…maybe a total of $5,000 or more.

    My regular taxi driver in PC says that professional thieves are now going from PC to rob in Volcan and other small towns. (Weren’t the robbers at Banistmo in Volcan from PC?)

    These robberies are happening far too often here, and they are just another reason to have LOTS of dogs…ones that sleep outside and ones that sleep inside. (And the “outside” dogs should NOT be on a chain. What kind of protection can they offer if they can’t attack potential maleantes?)

    Four of my dogs sleep outside at night, each in their own crate upon comfortable blankets…and without a doubt, they would maul any intruders. Six of my dogs sleep inside. My “outside” dogs are mostly trained not to bark unless there’s an important reason to do so, and I can hear from the tone of their occasional bark if I should go outside with a spotlight and other “protection.”

    Even if any low-life would-be robbers could manage to poison my outside dogs, my dogs who sleep inside are very vigilant. They have GOOD hearing, and if they hear anything unusual happening outside, they bark like crazy. (And I’m a light sleeper.) When that happens I also go outside with a spotlight and other “protection” against potential invaders. God help any would-be thieves who would poison my outside dogs! They’d soon be six feet under.

    All of my dogs are “Panamanian mutts” and have been adopted from the street. Without question, these kinds of dogs make the most loyal, loving pets that anyone could have. (To anyone who considers “buying” a dog, think about that and adopt a dog-for-free that will be the best friend you could ever have.)

    I have good neighbors who are friends, but it’s so dark at night that none of them would probably notice if thieves were on my property. Another reason to have lots of dogs that sleep both inside and outside!

    I have a permanent employee who works during the day; therefore, if I have to go to David or somewhere else during the day, he is here. My house is never unattended. I don’t go out at night. If I need or want to make a trip somewhere, for either a few days or even a couple of weeks, my employee stays at my house 24/7 and takes care of my dogs and my house.

    It’s a shame that we have to go to these extremes; however, it will get worse…both here and in the US. So let’s enjoy our lives here in Panama and establish the best protection that we can have.

    Protect yourselves as best you can: adopt numerous dogs – and please do have them sterilized at one of our clinics in Volcan! We use the BEST vet I’ve ever known. He is experienced in pediatric and small-incision sterilization. We safely sterilize at 8 weeks and up. Sterilization does not change an animal’s personality; they will still protect you and your property with their life.


  9. Don Ray, I’m so sorry that we missed you when we were in David. You had just left for PC, when we finally got around to wanting to contact you. I’d like to talk about the traffic and taxi drivers. I expected a lot of traffic in PC and we took our lives in our hands everytime we crossed the street. However, I didn’t expect the traffic to be so congested in David. We witnessed a bus/truck accident in David. The pick-up truck had Texas plates…and I watched to see who got out of the truck. Fortunately it wasn’t a gringo or you!
    We walked, or took the buses and taxis everywhere. We made our homebase in David, and took a daily bus trip. On one trip we took to Caldera, we just stayed on the bus to sightsee. We ended up at the bus driver’s house for lunch, then rode back to David through the mountains and over the rushing rivers. It ended up being a 5 hour trip that was gorgeous. I’m just so glad that we didn’t rent a car. I’ve heard horror stories about accidents with rental cars and the constant problems with the hub-caps being stolen…let alone the car jackings. The buses are definitely the way to go…and cheap.
    The taxi drivers were wonderful. We’d get in the cab and strike up a conversation with the drivers. We talked about sports, their families, and living in Panama. They showed us pictures of their families and offered to drive us around to look for rental property. Leo, in PC, took us to the Mireflores Locks, waited for us, then took us on a little tour of PC for no extra charge. Rapheal, in David, gave us his phone number to contact about driving us around David to look for places. Another taxi driver offered to take us to Boca Chica, although we thought the price was a gringo price and opted for the bus instead. I really enjoyed talking to the bus and taxi drivers.
    I am firm believer that what you give, you get in return. Treat others with respect, and show a genuine interest in their lives, and that’s what you get in return.
    Now, the crime is another story! We just don’t know about living in Panama. We understand crimes of opportunity and we’re always cautious, but I don’t want to live in a gringo compound for safety. I’m disheartened to hear of the increase in violent crime…yet it’s happening everywhere. An oasis of peace and tranquility does not exist anywhere. There is no paradise and it saddens me.

  10. Hi Debbie. Sorry we didn’t link up. You are correct, there is no paradise any place. Panama could be so much better and I hope it returns to the way I knew it 5 years ago. Thanks for adding your comment.

  11. Unfortunately crime is rampant world-wide. Shortly before I went to PC to start the process for getting my Pensionado, four of our fine young men took it into their heads to rob a series of Dunkin Donut shops. After getting their loot they shot the people in each of the three stores they robbed, killing one. I have to laugh at people who, when I tell them I plan on retiring to Panama, say “isn’t it dangerous down there?” Well, probably, but are you willing to die because you want a jelly donut?

  12. What you say is true Richard. However I understand that some of the changes in the Panama law during the last four years have aided in Panama being more dangerous.

  13. Don
    Thank you and the others who commented for taking the time to share your observations, perceptions and thoughts. Here in Texas, my wife and I discuss our plans and ideas daily about our move to Chiriqui that is yet several months in the future. Through your web site and some of the Yahoo groups, we’ve identified potential schools for our children, good dentists, nice places to shop, some lawyers with integrity and places to get a good hamburger. The information has provided us snapshots about the costs of living, buying a piece of land, building a house, and what to expect and what we should not expect. In all of this food for thought, my conclusion is that the most important consideration should be planning for the security measures necessary to keep my family safe. The Panamanian officials who are voted into office are tasked to ensure the safety of its citizens. That’s one of the primary reasons that government exists. Elected officials need to realize that if they don’t implement security measures sufficient to reverse the rise in crime in PC and its encroachment to the interior, those tourist dollars and real estate investments that are the bedrock of the Panamanian economy will dry up quicker than spit on a red hot frying pan. All Panama needs is some bad international press…CNN, BBC, ABC, Fox News…or whatever… for a few months and those dollars will go elsewhere.

    Thanks again for keeping us informed…you are appreciated.

  14. Don Ray:
    Crime raising is the result of worse economical situation for some panamanians and also opportunity (gringos seen like rich folks and easy pray, always).
    Mr Ruben Blades (famous salsa writer/singer, lawyer, actor) and current Minister of Tourism should read your entry in today’s blog.
    By the way, Feliz Ano Nuevo!

  15. an a small but very recent note: Had my camera stolen at the airport Sunday morning while departing from Panama. I recieved a gift that I hoped I could carry on to the plane, but was told I couldnt and needed to check my carry-on bag as well (where it was located). So I did, and KNEW I should have taken out the camera, but didn’t. They went in the bag, and took it out of the carrying case I store it in, and closed it back up. It was the first thing I checked for while going through customs in ATL. I filed a claim with Delta after I arrived home, and need to follow up on the claim. I’m hopeing I can get something out of this. I knew better, but Dang-it I’m pissed. I just want the pictures back.

  16. Hi Jamie. I agree that gringos will have a natural tendency to be a target because they will be thought of as being rich. However, crime is effecting the local Panamanian residences as well now. It is worse that it was when I came in 2003.

    Hi Carey,
    Sorry about your loss. Good luck with your claim.

  17. All I know is I am glad to be here and not there. I am listening to radio from a station from New York City. On their website them posted that they are 36 F this AM.

    I heard one scary theory about crime here. This was from an ex pat who has lived here for over 20 years. The theory was if crime gets so bad the people will demand that the military be brought back to handle the problem. Recently the law was changed so that a military man now heads up the national police. The job is usually held by a civilian.

    I think most of us ex pats are targets because we have more than others. As the famous robber, Willie Sutton, said he robbed banks because that is where the money was.

  18. Hi John. I also and happy to be here, but I don’t like seeing the trend. Like I said before, most of the people I spoke to in Panama City that were complaining about the crime increase were all Panamanians and not gringos.

  19. John,
    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, “Expats are targets simply because that’s where the money is.” The same could be applied to rich Panamanians.
    I often wondered why we weren’t targets of crime in Nicaragua. Sometimes we had 20 or more people at our house for ESL lessons. But, we lived very simply, nothing fancy…plastic chairs, plastic tables, a hammock for a couch. Our fence was made of chicken wire that the kids would hop over all the time. We didn’t have bars on the windows and only shut and bolted the wooden shutters when we went to bed at night. The only thing of value was my laptop, and when we left the house, I’d stuff it in my pillowcase.
    Once, we accidentally left the back door open when we went to Managua and our landlady called us to send her husband over to our house to lock it. We had hired 3 of my ESL students to machete our lawn, too. Nothing was taken, nor disturbed.
    Maybe we were just lucky. We only had a hammock and a fish trap stolen…but that was before we understood about crimes of opportunity. Maybe it’s because we lived on a primitive island and got to know everyone in our neighborhood. Maybe because everyone knew we didn’t have anything of value because it was a small community where everyone watched out for one another.
    I don’t know. All I do know is that I want to live without fear.
    Why move to a place in the world where you are killed for buying a donut, or raped or pistol whipped because you live on a dairy farm?
    I may be nieve, but surely there’s a place where fear doesn’t control my living.

  20. As always Don, your blog provides invaluable information from a myriad of sources. Happy New Year and welcome back.

    Having just gone through one of the worst Decembers in history here in Seattle, I can share the pain with the bloggers still living in winter weather. I can tell you that at the very top of my list of retirement location requirements is no snow….ever (but then New Orleans could have said that a few weeks ago) and temps that never go below 40 or 45. If I want to see snow again in my lifetime, I’ll look at pictures.

    As someone who has had Panama on the top of my list for some time now, I have to say that the recent posts about crime are disturbing and will certainly cause me to re-evaluate my list. I too, do not want to live in some gringo compound isolated from the culture and people that I came to experience. I traveled around the world for 25 years for business and am not ignorant when it comes to crime in various geographical and political climates. I know there is no such place as paradise anymore, but even with our crime rates here in the US, I feel safe all the time unless I do something stupid. It has been over 20 years since someone broke into my car, I can’t remember ever having a home broken into, and have never been beaten or robbed (you should hear the sound of all the knocking on wood going on right now…my knuckles may bleed). One of my restaurants was broken into a few years ago, but I have always felt it was an employee.

    All I want for my ideal retirement besides the aforementioned weather, is an affordable place that provides a comfortable life style and room for a couple of horses. I miss having them and my grandaughters will make sure my kids visit often as they are horse crazy.

    I still plan on coming to Panama later this year as I am still interested but will certainly stay aware of the crime issues.

    Thanks again for such a great blog.

  21. Hi Chuck. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Even with the crime increase, I still like Panama. However, I never say never and I am crossing my fingers that the Panamanian government will see the light and start cracking down.

  22. I have to say, I left Panama for this very reason, I live in Canada, we never lock our doors where I live, and never have, no crime to speak of, other than the web site scams and telemarketers, nobody I know has been robbed, it does happen in the big cities like Toronto and Vancouver, they are just like many places in teh USA (well not quite as bad).

    I sold in Volcan because life was way to difficult, and that was 1 year ago, now nobody can sell their properties, way to much “bad” has happened over the last year, I feel so sorry for some EX PATS that have properties for sale, they can not sell, some have dropped the prices in half, and no takers.

    Crime will get so bad many will leave, it may already be that bad I am told.

    MR Ruben Blades is inept, he does not care about crime at all, n or does the current government in Panama, I left for a very good reason, n ever to return.

    Good luck guys, if I was you I would leave ASAP

  23. This is going to get way worse before it gets better guys, get a gun (if that is allowed in Panama) to protect yourself, many EX PATS have guns or say they do), Dottie is one that I know has a gun, I feel sorry for anybody that breaks into Dottie’s house!!


  24. Don Ray says living in Panama is “where likes far outweigh the dislikes”, is that changing Don??

  25. this post thread is more important than ever, as crime is on the increase, I read all the reply’s to this post, and honestly, this is a very important issue for alll of us. I for one do not feel safe in Panama anymore, I know I am not alone.


  26. Hi again John. Being a single blogger, I only see what I see and hear what I hear. I am also confident that crime has increased and needs to be reported more in the gringo community. When I hear it or am sent information i post it.

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