Personal safety in Panama is highly subjective and hotly debated amongst expats. The answers whether Panama is safe are neither clear nor quantitative. This article will shed light from different angles, enabling you to decide for yourself.
Personal security is at the essence of our well-being.
Crime is not just about loss of property, more importantly, it can lead to physical pain, post-traumatic stress and anxiety. In extreme cases of crime, it can lead to loss of life.
Even a perceived threat can negatively affect our well-being through a feeling of vulnerability.
What is personal safety?
Thompson Rivers University offers a good description of what they perceive to be personal safety: According to their website, it refers to the freedom from physical harm and threat of physical harm, and freedom from hostility, aggression, harassment, and devaluation by members of the public.
For the purpose of this discussion, that description would include any form of crime, including acts of terrorism.
How important is personal safety?
This website is concerned with the voluntary, informed and well-planned relocation decisions, of people who have the means to begin a new life in another country.
Amongst this group, the top six reasons include the following:
- Personal safety
- Job or business opportunities
- Political stability
- Cost of living
For prospective retirees, cost of living and an agreeable climate would be the main drivers of their desire to live in Panama. However, one of the first questions asked is, “is Panama safe?”
The answer to that question will always feature as one of the main deciding factors.
Statistics do not lie
Generally, crime statistics and reports are compiled from one of two sources, namely:
- From crimes reported through the law enforcement system;
- From various surveys done by a multitude of role-players.
The more serious crimes, for example homicide and armed robbery, are reported relatively accurately. Less serious crimes, like housebreaking and theft, tend to be under-reported, especially in rural areas. Some crimes may also be under-reported for political reasons.
One of the most common indicators used in statistics and comparisons, is the homicide rate. It is expressed as the number of homicides per 100,000 people.
Statistics is an indicator only
The number of homicides per capita (or per 100,000 people) is not an absolute measurement of safety. It can however be used to determine a trend, or to compare another country with one which you are familiar with.
The same applies to country rankings. Do not fall into the trap of simply looking at rankings as an absolute indicator of safety. The fact that a country ranks better, even a lot better than another, does not mean it is safe.
Just because Somalia ranks better than Afghanistan, you would not say, “Afghanistan is too dangerous. I’m moving to Somalia!”
You have to delve deeper into the detail, to uncover the types of crimes and the prevalence of each.
1. InSight Crime
InSight Crime is a foundation that studies the principal threat to national and citizen security in Latin America.
Since I mentioned the homicide rate as a common indicator, let us start by looking at the most recent homicide statistics for Latin America and the Caribbean, published by InSight Crime.
This is the write-up about Panama:
“Panama: 9.6 homicides per 100,000 people
In December, Panama’s Public Ministry released a report showing that there were 401 murders between January and November of 2018, about a dozen fewer (sic)(Author: should read more) than the 378 deaths in 2017.
At this count, the homicide rate sits at 9.6 per 100,000 people. The report highlighted that more than 40 percent (169) of the incidents occurred in the capital, Panama City.
National Police Director Alonso Vega Pino says that the slight increase is “directly related to organized crime.” Panama’s geography makes it a vital transit point for illegal trade in the region. An internal investigation into an international arms trafficking network in October 2018 illustrated the country’s ongoing challenges with confronting corruption and organized crime.”
In summary: Is Panama safe? Yes.
2. Panama homicides by geographical region
This extract is from a report published by the Office of the Attorney General. It clearly indicates the homicide hotspots. Two geographical areas, UH Panamá and UH Colón, are responsible for 61% (249/409) of the homicides between January and November 2018.
In summary: Is Panama safe? Yes, but avoid the two hotspots if you can.
3. Social Progress Index
This is one of my favourite reports, as it not only gives an overall ranking; it also ranks 12 individual sections within the index. The 2018 Social Progress Index includes data from 146 countries.
Panama’s ranking has deteriorated over the last year. It achieves an overall rank of 51/146 (40/128 the previous year) and on Personal Safety the ranking is 72/146 (49/128 the previous year).
In summary: Is Panama safe? Yes, but take note of a deteriorating ranking.
4. World Bank report
The World Bank makes use of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s database on international homicide statistics. I found a graph of the Intentional Homicides (per 100,000 people) for Panama, which show two noteworthy aspects:
- It corroborates the number reported by InSight Crime (discussed above);
- It shows a decreasing trend line, from the peak of 2013.
In summary: Is Panama safe? Yes. The trend line is encouraging but all possible precautions must be taken to ensure personal safety.
5. Global Peace Index
The global think tank, the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), compiles the Global Peace Index. It measures a wide range of indicators, 22 in all; the most relevant to this discussion include the following:
- Level of organised conflict (internal);
- Level of perceived criminality in society;
- Number of refugees and displaced persons as percentage of population;
- Homicide rate;
- Level of violent crime;
- Number of internal security officers and police per 100,000 people.
The 2018 Global Peace Index ranks Panama at 50 out of 163 countries (49/163 the previous year). The interactive map is user friendly and has the functionality to search any one of the 23 individual indicators.
In summary: Is Panama safe? Yes. Relatively.
The Gang-Drugs-Murder connection
In another article published by InSight Crime, “Mapped: Where Panama’s Gangs are Strongest, Homicides are Highest”, the author illustrates the link between gang activity and the local homicide rate.
As an expat, I can certainly avoid gang activities and, to a meaningful degree, avoid areas where gangs are most active.
Another angle on this is the non-gang related homicide rate. Removing gang and/or drug related homicides from the total, significantly reduces the “everyday” homicide rate; the rate that I as an expat are concerned with.
Opinion of locals
The opinions of locals are always important, regardless of the subject. Locals have the information and insider knowledge that makes life easier.
However, when it comes to crime, I would urge you to be careful about any local interpretation of the crime situation. Ask pertinent questions about areas or precautions, and you will probably receive accurate and useful answers. Nevertheless, be wary of broad opinion statements.
Opinion of expats
This thread appeared on ‘Expats in Panama’ in January 2019. I have edited the question for grammar and relevancy; the crux remained intact. This specific thread elicited more than 50 comments.
“Hoping to get feedback regard safety in Panama. I have spoken to numerous people about my dream of retiring in Panama in a few years, however people here are telling me I am crazy due to their friends who have gone & been robbed.”
Below are 10 responses I have selected to share. It was edited for relevancy and (somewhat) for grammar, but they accurately reflect the crux of the responses.
“I’ve had friends murdered in Tampa, Fl. That wouldn’t mean that I would try to recommend that people not move there. I have always felt very safe in Panama. You need common sense. You also need to make sure to move to a property that is not exposed. Some people live in the countryside, with little in home security measures, and that puts them at higher risk for robbery/home invasion.”
“People thought I was crazy doing it. But here I am in the hills living safely after 10 years.”
“Be aware of your surroundings, don’t wear your wealth and enjoy living in Panamá.”
“It is safe for the most part. Occasionally you will hear about a home invasion of an expat but occasionally you hear about it happening in Alberta Canada too. I have never felt unsafe here. As has been said, you need to be aware of your surroundings. Every large city in North America and Europe has areas that it is not advisable to be alone out at night. The same holds true here in Panama City. Also, don’t be alone on the beach at night – you could be asking for troubles.”
“As long as you avoid the sketchy areas of Panama City (El Chorrillo, San Miguelito, Samaria, Torrijos-Carter, etc.), you’ll be fine. Just remember to be aware of your surroundings, don’t go down dark alleys, don’t flaunt expensive jewelry, avoid taking out your smartphone in public unless absolutely necessary.”
“Panama is like any other place, you have to be aware of your surroundings and not go into certain areas. I was robbed only once since 1979, and that was in 1979 when I had only been here one week and decided to take a stroll through El Chorillo because I was young and stupid.”
“13 years in various parts of Panama City and no issues whatsoever. In Costa Rica (which everyone assumes is a safe country), I was a victim of crime more than a dozen times. Panama looks sketchier, but is far safer. Don’t be too flashy and trust your intuition. As a rule, I never leave my cell phone or computer in the car (not even for two minutes), and I never, ever take yellow taxis, only Uber or Cabify. Most people I know who have been robbed in Panama, have been robbed in taxis.”
“I have been in Panama City for 26 years this month and really haven’t had any issues. I’m aware when I am out and about, but I feel safe here.”
“In the past 6 years we have been fine, but we have friends being mugged and assaulted sitting in taxis. And in expat and gated communities; its common knowledge that there are travel seasons and that is high season for robberies.”
“How many people are mugged in New York City, Philadelphia? How many people have been shot dead in a mall, church, school, etc in the United States? Have people told you not to move there? You cannot live your life afraid of being robbed, shot, etc. Be smart. Take the necessary precautions and you will be fine.”
Another thread that caught my eye, also concerning the question whether Panama is safe, had fewer responses. Here are two of the most noteworthy responses.
“I lived in Ancon for three years and left Panama 2 years ago. My house was broken into 3 times even after paying a ton of money for a new fence. Getting professional people to do anything was near impossible. I was assaulted twice and had my wallet stolen once in Ancon and once in the car park of Multi Plaza where they put a knife to my back. I had someone shout in the supermarket to fuck off home to my own country.”
“Punta Barco is where all the ultra-wealthy people are. Criminals know to stay away because of the strong political influence, they know stealing from the ultra-wealthy will get you nearly beaten to death by the police while in custody. They rather steal from middle class tourists in Coronado.”
That was a roundup of expat views about safety in Panama.
Important note: Be circumspect when reading comments on online expat forums. Some overzealous commentators have little or no actual knowledge of the subject matter. For example, I found a Panama related group where the main administrator was not even living in Panama! I often read comments that are technically incorrect, especially when it comes to residency matters.
Types of crime
Some expats are very dogmatic about the crime situation. They accept that Panama has crime, and only want some quantification about what type of crime they are likely to encounter.
It seems that housebreaking and theft remains the most common criminal problem. Violent confrontations are uncommon, which implies burglars would mostly strike when the owners or occupants are not at home. Brazen burglaries do occur, but are sporadic.
Common theft is, well, common. Lock it up or stow it securely, or it will be gone.
Armed robbery is uncommon, but having valuables (cash, mobile, jewelry, and electronics) on your person elevates the probability of being robbed at knife or gunpoint.
Pickpockets are not limited to just a few areas; they seem to be everywhere. Be cautious whenever you are out and active. Be extra vigilant at crowded tourist spots and public transport hubs.
Practical steps to remain safe
At the risk of being accused of using derogatory terms, I am going to offer overarching personal safety advise with the saying “don’t be fresh off the boat.” It is simply saying, be informed, and act accordingly to ensure your safety.
Practical steps you can take to remain safe:
- Use ATMs inside a bank, or those with lockable cubicles, preferably during daytime;
- Try not to look like a tourist – tourists are targets;
- Don’t look or act lost, even if you are. Walk purposefully to a safe place where you can gather your thoughts or ask for help;
- Using an expensive iPhone or smartphone in public will attract unwanted attention;
- Avoid yellow metered cabs, use Uber or Lyft;
- Be careful to make friends, and be slow to invite them into your personal space;
- Avoid dark and deserted areas at night;
- If you want to explore the nightlife, ask about a venue’s safety first, or even better, go in a group (of trusted friends);
- Be aware of your surroundings; especially of people that might follow you;
- Do not flash valuables. That is not limited to wearing jewelry; it includes the bag containing your newly bought iPhone (That shopping bag with the big logo on!)
I could have added this to the list, but the word deserves a separate mention: Don’t be a “yeyecito”. A yeyecito is a wealthy person who boasts of his or her condition by flaunting expensive clothing and accessories. Enough said.
Is Panama safe? We are aware of the crimes that occur around us, we read the local and expat forums, as well as the online newspaper(s). Nevertheless, we feel safe in Panama, including Panama City. We have used the Metro extensively, and love walking from 5 de Mayo to Casco Viejo. We enjoy the photo opportunities in San Felipe and feel safe to walk to the top of Ancon Hill. There are areas in the city that we avoid altogether. In Bocas, we never hesitate to walk or cycle wherever we want to go.
We do our level best to take whatever precautions we can. Knock on wood; to date we have not been the victim of a crime in Panama.
“Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
I would love to have your thoughts whether Panama is safe or not.
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