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Overseas Security Advisory Council
Bureau of Diplomatic Security
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Panamá 2020 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Panama City. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Panama. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s country-specific page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Travel Advisory

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Panamá at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions. Do not travel to parts of the Mosquito Gulf or to parts of the Darién Region due to crime. Review OSAC’s report, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation 

Crime Threats 

 The U.S. Department of State has assessed Panama City as being a HIGH-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Panamá remains relatively safe when compared to other Central American countries, yet crime rates are high, including shootings, rapes, armed robberies, muggings, and thefts. The provinces with the largest cities also had the highest overall crime rates: Panamá, Colón, Herrera, and Chiriquí. Updated statistics for 2019 were not available from the Panamanian National Police (Policía Nacional de Panamá, PNP) as of this report writing. In 2018, overall homicide numbers were 440, reports of assault 3,670, sexual assault 4,959; robbery 8,939; and theft 14,233. It is important to note that crime reporting is typically lower in some rural provinces. 

Residential burglary remains a problem for occupied and unoccupied dwellings. These burglaries tend to happen when it is less likely for the resident to be home, as thieves generally focus on stealing property and tend to avoid violent confrontations. Contributing factors to residential burglaries are inadequate perimeter walls, a lack of alarms or the use of alarms, minimal lighting, non-existent/weak grilles, and poorly paid/trained guards. Although the overall crime trend is downward, residential burglary stands out as an issue that affects even relatively affluent areas.  Review OSAC’s reports, Hotels: The Inns and Outs and Considerations for Hotel Security.

While reports of thefts are considerably lower over the last year, theft from vehicles remains a consistent problem through the country, especially in metropolitan areas. Most thefts from vehicles are crimes of opportunity, targeting vehicles with visible high-value items, bags, and/or purses left in plain view. When driving/parking, either take valuables with you or ensure they are out of sight. Review OSAC’s report, All That You Should Leave Behind.

Review OSAC’s reports, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud and Taking Credit.

Other Areas of Concern 

Several high-crime areas have the potential to be relatively more dangerous. These are lower-income areas and/or areas of increased gang activity with a lower police presence. High-crime áreas in/around Panama City are: El Chorrillo, San Miguel, Santa Ana, Cabo Verde, Curundu, Veracruz Beach, Santa Librada, Rio Abajo, San Miguelito, Juan Diaz, Pedregal, and Panamá Viejo. 

Colón is a high-crime area with increased gang activity; use extreme caution when traveling in this area. In January 2018, police and protesters clashed with gang members taking advantage of the situation to loot and attack authorities. Criminal elements burned a police mobile command post, and the Embassy restricted travel for personnel to the area. 

The Mosquito Coast (Caribbean side) and the Darién region (Colombian border) are particularly hazardous due to their remoteness and the presence of criminal organizations. The “Mosquito Coast” is an extremely remote and inaccessible area along the north coast, bounded by Boca de Rio Chiriquí to the west and Coclé Del Norte to the east and stretching inward for five kilometers. Access to the region is almost exclusively by boat/aircraft. The area may also have a few unimproved roads/paths that are not marked on maps. This may be particularly true in the mining area along the Petaquilla River. Transnational criminal organizations use sections of this coastline for illicit activities. The area of the Darién encompasses the Darién National Park and some privately-owned nature reserves and tourist resorts. The general remoteness contributes to potential hazards. Due to scarcity of roads, most travel is by river/footpath. This, combined with spotty medical infrastructure, makes travel there potentially hazardous. In addition, transnational criminal organizations involved in drug and human trafficking operate in the area.  

Transportation-Safety Situation 

Road Safety and Road Conditions  

Traffic moves on the right, as in the U.S. Panamanian law requires the use of seat belts. Driving can be hazardous and difficult due to heavy traffic, undisciplined driving habits, poorly maintained streets, and a shortage of effective signs/signals. @TraficoCPanama is a reliable source for traffic information on Twitter. Use caution when driving at night, as it is particularly hazardous on the old Panama City-Colón highway. Defensive driving is fundamental.

Flooding during the rainy season (April-December) can make city streets impassible and may wash out roads in the interior. In addition, roads in rural areas are often in poor condition and lack illumination. These roads generally have less traffic, and a very limited availability of emergency roadside assistance. 

Carry identification with you, and be prepared for unannounced checkpoints, especially at night. Police periodically conduct vehicle checkpoints at key intersections in cities in an effort to raise their visibility and hamper criminal movements through high-crime areas.  

Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety Abroad, Driving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad.

Public Transportation Conditions 

Use public transportation with caution. While there are reports of thefts and pickpocketing, new metro buses with bigger windows and better lighting have reduced instances of violent crime.  

Use caution when taking taxis. Use only licensed registered taxis. Check that the number on the side of the taxi matches the number of the license plate. Ensuring the car is a registered taxi is a quick way to help prevent incidents. In addition, use established taxi stands when possible.  

Never get into a taxi that already has a passenger and instruct the driver not to pick up any additional fares. Many hotels have tourist taxis that are not yellow, and only pick up passengers in front of well-known hotels and airports. Never let a helpful stranger direct you to a particular taxi or taxi stand, and always negotiate the fare before getting in to ensure a fixed price. 

Ride-sharing services are well developed and seemingly ubiquitous in Panama City. As a transportation option, these new smartphone-based services may offer many advantages over traditional taxis. For example, they use a linked credit card as the primary form of payment, the fare calculation is transparent, and the receipt is electronic. Despite these advantages, practice common-sense safety precautions whenever using any hired transport. 

Panamá has an established metro rail system, but not all of the stations are operational; trains will not stop at a station until construction is complete. The metro, though equipped with state-of-the-art security features, traverses and stops in some of the highest-crime areas of the city. Confined spaces provide excellent environments for pickpockets and other criminal activities. The PNP has established a Metro Police Unit responsible for the security of the trains and platforms. 

Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Terrorism Threat 

The U.S. Department of State has assessed POST as being a LOW-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. In 2017, authorities arrested operatives of the terrorist group Hizb’allah in the United States. The investigation discovered that Hizb’allah had previously conducted pre-operational surveillance of the U.S. Embassy in Panama City and the Panama Canal. Panamá’s strategic location as a gateway between Central and South America make it an ideal transshipment area.  

Panamá was the first Latin American country to join the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, and the terrorist group has mentioned Panamá in ISIS propaganda and threats. 

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence 

Civil Unrest 

The U.S. Department of State has assessed POST as being a MEDIUM-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Protests are relatively common. Demonstrations often focus on domestic issues (e.g. students’ rights, labor disputes) or, on rare occasions, manifestations of anti-U.S. sentiment by small but vociferous groups. While most demonstrations are non-violent, it is a good security practice to avoid them. The PNP have used tear gas and/or other riot control measures in response to demonstrations, particularly when they block roadways. Demonstrations and marches can and do occur around the country, to include in Colón and Chiriquí, and along the Pan-American Highway.  

Protests outside of the city have caused road closures on major thoroughfares that can last for several hours. During these extended road closures, the security situation can be tense, and the potential exists for violence between authorities and protestors. Consult local news and police for the most recent information on possible road closures.  Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest.

Religious/Ethnic Violence  

Indigenous communities protest against mining and dam construction projects in the interior. The Ngobe-Bugle people have mobilized several times to close the Pan-American Highway in protest of a dam project at Cerro Blanco. These protests have caused major travel disruptions and violent confrontations with the police. 

Post-specific Concerns 

Environmental Hazards 

Earthquakes occur infrequently in Panamá. The central corridor of Panamá is at a lower seismic risk than Colombia and Costa Rica; however, there are several fault lines running through the country, and there have been three recent earthquakes, as recently as January 2019.  

During the rainy season, torrential rains, particularly in October-December, cause mudslides, road closures, and flooding. Strong winds and rains caused by tropical depressions have also felled trees, caused landslides, power outages, and several fatalities. 

Critical Infrastructure  

Industrial and transportation accidents are a concern, particularly for truck traffic on the highways. Panamá does not have a large manufacturing center, but occasional accidents have led to temporary evacuations due to spills of industrial strength chemicals.  

The Panama Canal Authority has requirements in place to mitigate potential accidents and practices emergency response procedures regularly. 

Economic Concerns 

Because of the insular nature of the business community, it is not uncommon for proprietary information to become public. Panamá has an adequate, effective domestic legal framework to protect and enforce intellectual property rights, though there are occasional complaints of violations, especially in the Colón Free Zone. 

Personal Identity Concerns 

LGBTI individuals enjoy full legal rights in Panama. However, Panamanian law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and there is societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Same sex marriages are neither conducted nor recognized in Panama. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.

Individuals with disabilities may find accessibility and accommodation very different from what you find in the United States. Panamanian law only mandates access to new or remodeled public buildings for persons with disabilities, which is enforced for new construction. Handicapped parking is often available at many larger parking lots. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Privacy Concerns 

Privacy concerns include the vulnerability of cyber infrastructure that contains personally identifiable information. 

Drug-related Crimes 

Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Panama are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. Panamá reported seizing approximately 75 metric tons of drugs in 2018, along with $11 million in drug related monies. By far, the drug seized most by quantity was cocaine. 

Boaters should be wary of vessels that may be transporting narcotics and illicit materials, or being used in human smuggling operations. Packages containing narcotics have been found floating in the ocean or lying on remote beaches. Do not pick up or move these packages, and immediately report their location to the Panamanian authorities.

Kidnapping Threat 

There were only nine registered kidnapping cases in Panamá for 2018. Most of these were drug-related, according to police sources. Review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics.

Police Response 

Incidents of police harassing foreigners for bribes are uncommon. If one does occur, the best course of action is to refuse to pay any bribe (unless threatened with the use of force), and if the request persists, ask to speak with a supervisor. Report such extortion attempts to ACS 

The PNP have a special Tourism Police Unit to deal with crimes against tourists and foreigners, as well as sub-stations in all major regions in Panamá, and numerous offices in Panama City. PNP performance and responsiveness to incidents involving U.S. citizens has been good, if not always timely. The main police number is 104, but telephone operators may not speak English, and most police officers speak very little English. In most cases, one may get a better response by calling the local police substation directly. Download the State Department’s Crime Victims Assistance brochure.

Victims of crime should report to the local Judicial Investigative Directorate (DIJ) office to lodge an official complaint (denuncia), even if time has passed, as criminals often repeat the same crime within the same general location; reporting allows better crime tracking and response. Be sure to file a denuncia in the case of a lost/stolen U.S. passport. 

Police/Security Agencies  

In addition to the PNP, other law enforcement/security entities include the National Institutional Protection Service (SPI), the National Border Service (SENAFRONT), and the National Air/Naval Service (SENAN). The U.S. Embassy maintains strong relationships with Panamanian security services and provides an extensive amount of capacity building and operational training. 

Medical Emergencies 

Panama City has some good hospitals and clinics, but medical facilities outside of the capital are limited.. For medical assistance, refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance page. 

Hospitals in Panama are either private hospitals or government-run public hospitals. Private hospitals typically require payment of the anticipated costs of hospitalization prior to providing services and require payment of any additional costs upon release from the hospital. These costs can be in excess of USD$10,000-$20,000, depending on the nature of the treatment. In Panama, most hospitals accept credit cards for hospital charges, but not for doctors' fees and do not accept international wire transfers or credit card payments over the phone. The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Department’s webpage on insurance overseas.

Except for antibiotics and narcotics, most medications are available without a prescription.

In a life-threatening emergency, go directly to the nearest hospital emergency room or call an ambulance. The 911-call center provides ambulance service in Panama City, Colón, and the Pan-American Highway between Panama City and Chiriqui. However, an ambulance may not always be available, and given difficulties with traffic and poor road conditions, there may be a significant delay in response. There are private ambulance services available on a subscription basis.

Most other communities have lesser services, facilities, and/or clinics. Ambulance service outside the urban centers is non-existent.

For fire emergencies call 103. 

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance  

The following diseases are prevalent in Panamá: Zika virus; Dengue; Chikungunya; Malaria; Travelers’ Diarrhea; and Tuberculosis. The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Panamá. 

OSAC Country Council Information  

Panama City has an active Country Council, meeting quarterly. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s Latin America team with any questions. 

U.S. Embassy Contact Information  

The Embassy is located on Ave. Demetrio Lakas, in the Clayton neighborhood of Panama City. 

Operating Hours: Monday-Thursday, 0830-1700, and Friday, 0830-1200 

Switchboard: 317-5000  

U.S. Marine Guard Post One: 317-5200 (for non-Consular after-hours emergencies) 

Website: https://PA.usembassy.gov  

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

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