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Petty Crime in Panama, On the Rise

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 02 June 2008 09:43
Panama Detective HatAs a child, my brother and I enjoyed countless hours of mystery TV shows in which we regularly solved crimes before the handsome detective. While he was busy sipping scotch with the waitress of a local pub, we were frantic jotting down notes about the perpetrator and deciding whether or not it could be related to the episode from a few weeks past. As self-proclaimed sleuths, we were not in the business of small crimes. Purse snatchings and similar offenses could be handled by other, less experienced detectives. We tended to take on larger, more influential cases where our skills could really be put to the test: for example, a bizarre sequence of events in rural Texas where an entire village was wiped out by a laser-wielding land octopus. It was these high profile stories that tended to draw most of our attention.

As my childhood progressed, so too did my detective celebrity, slowly evolving from book smarts to the street. In Madrid, Spain where I was studying economics, a young gypsy man once squirted mustard on my shirt and simultaneously tried to steal my camcorder. Having the experience and the know-how of a seasoned pro, I noticed it immediately and apprehended the suspect: and by apprehended, I mean gave him the camcorder and ran away screaming like a little girl.

The first thing I did when I got to Central America was buy a Panama hat which, in hindsight, looks scarily like that which Dick Tracy and other famous detectives used to flaunt.

In the bustling streets and busy shops of Panama City, it might be hard to sense petty crime, partly because not a whole lot of it exists. Quite rarely do you hear about bag snatchings or pickpockets in Panama's major areas: with many longtime expats, including myself, believing the isthmus to be more safe than their home countries.

You wont read about it a much, but poverty humbles Panama. City slum areas, while not comparable to dire situations in Africa or Asia, are pretty darn unsettling to a first-world tourist. One microcosm of this poverty-meeting-foreigners phenomenon being the World Heritage Site of Casco Antiguo where, outside of a 12-block "tourism zone", errant tourists are often the subject of muggings. And while it takes some street smarts to know you shouldn't walk directly into the heart of a ghetto, a number of camera-wielding tourists manage to find their way there nonetheless.

The majority of crime in Panama is limited to lower-class barrios and higher-class corruption: not unlike in the United States. Tourists are, of course, always advised to exercise the same amount of caution they would at home, meaning if you see a dark alley you probably shouldn't go have a picnic down it. But for the most part, Panama has a very comfortable and safe feel to those of us not involved in anything suspicious.
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With the increase in tourism though, meaning a continual and ongoing mixture of locals and foreigners (thus an increased disparity in personal wealth), Panama City is sure to see a rise in petty crime in the coming years.

Nowadays, you hear about the petty stuff occasionally: a tourist who has their Rolex stolen in El Cangrejo or a stripper who secretly removed a credit card while giving a lap dance. You're starting to hear of more home burgleries targetting foreginers. And even more infrequently do you hear of truly original petty crime, such as slashing rental car tires with razors then falsely offering to help the stranded visitors. Even as a young detective, I would have disregarded this kind of fiasco as random and unremarkable.

Thankfully in Panama, it's still mostly a matter of avoiding rough neighborhoods, which, in safety terms, is an easy enough solution. It's nothing like London or Paris where the general rule is "if you're in a tourist spot, we suggest you shackle all valuable belongings to your body using this conspicuous chain link and padlock. Anyone posing as anything may try to rob you."

Why petty crime is so relatively low is not terribly obvious. Some say its thanks to Panama's nascent tourism industry, others attribute it to the strong and consequential police presence. Some say foreigners have been here for a long time, others say Panama has a strong middle class. Surely, as tourism hotspots rise in popularity, petty thieves will logically be drawn there as they do almost everywhere else in the world. But for the time being, as a detective like myself searching for his next noteworthy case, there's not a whole lot to go on...


Note: This article was written using no statistical analysis or academic resources. It is purely the observations and beliefs of an expat who's been around the country for some time.

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curious
written by tejano , June 08, 2008
Matt...how long have you been living in Panama?
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i don't live in Panama
written by Mateo , June 08, 2008
I live in the USA
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Panama
written by james , August 13, 2008
Hi,

have you ever been to panama city in august, is it worth going down ? thanks
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Last Updated on Wednesday, 03 September 2008 12:40
 
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