Panama 2014 Crime and Safety Report
Travel Health and Safety; Transportation Security; Stolen items; Theft; Murder; Burglary; Drug Trafficking; Narco-Terrorism; Riots/Civil Unrest; Earthquakes; Floods; Cargo Security; Cyber; Information Security; Kidnapping; Bribery; Extortion; Fraud; Financial Security
Western Hemisphere > Panama; Western Hemisphere > Panama > Panama City
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
Panama remains relatively safe when compared to other Central American countries, yet crime rates are higher than one would encounter in most of the United States.
Violent crime in Panama started to rise in 2007 and topped 800 murders in 2009. However, efforts by Panama’s National Police (PNP) to combat this trend appear to have made an impact. In 2010, the number of homicides declined to 759. This number was maintained in 2011, and there was a further decline in 2012 with a total of 665 recorded homicides. 2013 also ended with 665 recorded homicides. This puts the homicide rate at approximately 18.0 per 100,000 inhabitants for 2012 and 2013.
While reports of armed robbery stayed basically unchanged between 2012 and 2013, still down 10 percent from the high in 2009, reports of unarmed robbery continued an upward trend, up five percent from 2012 to 2013 with 2,860 registered cases. Simple theft increased, with 20,710 cases reported in 2013 versus 20,304 cases registered in 2012. Reports of thefts from commercial establishments and burglaries of homes both continued downward trends.
Overall Road Safety Situation
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Road conditions may differ significantly from those in the United States. Traffic moves on the right, as in the U.S., and Panamanian law requires that drivers and passengers wear seat belts. Panama's roads and traffic and transportation systems are generally safe, but frequently traffic lights do not exist, even at busy intersections. Traffic roundabouts are common, and extreme care should be taken when entering and exiting them.
Driving in Panama City is often hazardous and difficult due to heavy traffic, undisciplined driving habits, poorly maintained streets, and a shortage of effective signs and traffic signals. On roads where poor lighting and driving conditions prevail, night driving is difficult and should be approached with caution. Night driving is particularly hazardous on the old Panama City – Colon highway. Roads in rural areas are often poorly maintained and lack illumination at night. Such roads are generally less traveled, and the availability of emergency roadside assistance is very limited. Flooding during the April to December rainy season occasionally makes city streets impassible and washes out some roads in the interior of the country.
Public transportation should be used with caution. A modern public transit infrastructure, including modern buses, has been rolled out, and the older Diablos Rojos buses, or “Red Devils,” mostly have been retired, but the security of the new transit system cannot be evaluated. The first line of the new metro subway system is due to open in 2014, and the National Police have created a new unit dedicated ensuring passenger security.
Reports of car theft rose from 560 in 2012 to 915 in 2013.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
The presence of Colombian terrorist groups, drug traffickers, and other criminals is common around the Panama-Colombia border area, increasing the danger to travelers in that area. While the government has eliminated permanent encampments, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) operates drug and human smuggling through Panama’s Darien Province. The Secretary of State has designated the FARC, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) as Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
There may be demonstrations to protest domestic issues or, more rarely, manifestations of anti-American sentiment by small, but vociferous, groups. While most demonstrations are non-violent, it is a good security practice to avoid demonstrations. The Panamanian National Police have used tear gas and/or other riot control measures in response to demonstrations, particularly when roadways have been blocked. Demonstrations and marches can and do occur in many locations around the country, to include Colon and areas along the PanAmerican Highway. U.S. citizens should exercise caution near the campus of the University of Panama, and the National Assembly, both of which have been the scenes of protests.
Protestors blocked remote roadways and the PanAmerican Highway on an intermittent basis throughout 2012, sometimes for periods lasting several days, trapping travelers on the roads without access to food and water. During these extended road closures, the security situation can be tense, and the potential for violence between authorities and protestors is real. U.S. citizens traveling by road outside Panama City should travel with full fuel tanks, carry extra potable water and food, and ensure cell phones are charged during their travel. For the most recent information on possible road closures, the Embassy advises U.S. citizens to monitor local news and consult local police.
Religious or Ethnic Violence
The protests that closed the PanAmerican Highway in February 2012 originated in a dispute between the government and an indigenous group over mining and water rights. In addition to the road closure, protestors burned and ransacked police stations in the Chiriqui area. There were also reports of protestors using Molotov cocktails and firearms against anti-riot police. Subsequent indigenous protests have not seen these levels of violence.
Environmental hazards include the possibility of earthquakes (several fault lines are present, and small earthquakes do occur in Panama) and flooding caused by the torrential rains, particularly toward the end of the rainy season (October-December).
Industrial and Transportation Accidents
Industrial and transportation accidents, particularly for truck traffic on the highways, are a concern. Panama does not have a large manufacturing center, but there are occasional accidents that have led to temporary office evacuations due to spills of industrial strength chemicals. The Panama Canal Authority has requirements in place to mitigate potential accidents in the canal and regularly practices emergency response procedures.
Privacy concerns include the vulnerability of cyber infrastructure that contains personally identifiable information.
Regional Travel Concerns and Restricted Travel Areas/Zones
U.S. Embassy personnel are allowed to travel to the restricted border areas of the Darien only on official business and with prior approval of the Embassy’s Regional Security Officer and Deputy Chief of Mission.
Travel is also restricted in the area of Panama referred to as the “Mosquito Coast,” an extremely remote and inaccessible area along the north coast bounded by Boca de Rio Chiriquí on the west and Coclé Del Norte on the east and stretching inward for five kilometers.
Panama reported seizing 41 metric tons of drugs in 2013. This number is down from the 2010 high of 54.24 metric tons but up from 35.51 metric tons in 2012. The increase and subsequent decrease in violent crime from 2007-2013 has paralleled the increase and decrease of drug seizures.
Reported kidnappings declined in 2012, following a three-year downward trend after hitting a high of 38 reported kidnappings in 2009; 2012 ended with 20 reported kidnappings for the year. Numbers for 2013 are not available.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
Incidents of police harassing foreigners for bribes are uncommon. If it does occur, the best course of action is to refuse payment. If they persist, you should request to speak with their supervisor. Such extortion attempts can be reported to American Citizen Services at Panama-ACS@state.gov.
Where to Turn to for Assistance if you Become a Victim of Crime
If personnel are victims of a crime, they will need to go to the local Judicial Investigative Directorate (DIJ) office to lodge an official complaint (denuncia).
The Panamanian National Police (PNP) created a special Tourism Police unit to deal with crimes against tourists and foreigners. The PNP have substations in all the major regions in Panama and numerous offices in Panama City. Their performance and responsiveness to incidents involving Americans has been good.
The main police number is 104; however, telephone operators may not speak English, and most police officers speak very little English.
Various Police/Security Agencies
In addition to the PNP, other law enforcement/security entities include: the National Infrastructure Protection Service (SPI), the National Frontier Service (SENAFRONT), and the Naval/Air Service (SENAN).
Panama City has excellent trauma hospitals; however, most other communities have lesser services, facilities, and/or clinics. You are expected to pay for medical services with cash at the time of the service; however, some hospitals accept U.S. insurance cards with a deposit payment. Hospitals will accept international credit cards. Ambulance service outside the urban centers is non-existent. Panama does provide free medical insurance for tourists (travelers will be provided with a pamphlet upon arrival at immigration). For medical emergencies, call 911 and for fire emergencies call 103.
Recommended Air Ambulance Services
Air ambulance support is from the United States. Travelers with medical conditions may wish to consider Medevac insurance prior to visiting Panama.
CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
You can find good information on vaccinations and other health precautions on the CDC country-specific vaccination and health guidance page.
Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
There is a continuing risk of various types of fraud schemes; the most common is the unauthorized use of credit cards, either by a clerk skimming/recording the number for later illegal use or through inflated charges. Travelers should pay close attention to their credit card receipts before they sign them and be very observant when handing someone their credit card.
Areas to be Avoided
Avoid the higher-crime “Red Zones” of: Panama Viejo (the neighborhood, not the park itself), Cabo Verde, Curundu, San Miguel, Marañon, Chorillo, Barraza, Santana, Monte Oesuro, San Miguelito, Ciudad Radial, San Cristobal, San Pedro, Pedregal, San Juaquin, Mañanitas, Nuevo Tocumen, 24 de Diciembre, Sector Sur Tocumen, Felipillo, Chilibre, Caimitillo, Alcalde Diaz, and Pacora.
Best Situational Awareness Practices
Watch out for con artists who pose as U.S. citizens in distress and who ask for financial assistance.
Keep a low personal profile. Do not flash cash or wear expensive jewelry. Keep your smart phone on your person, preferably covered with a jacket or shirt. Stay alert to your surroundings. If you see something suspicious or that makes you uncomfortable, go back the way you came or get to a place of relative safety.
Ensure your taxi is real. Real taxis will have a taxi license plate and have the license plate number and company logo painted on the back door on both sides. Personnel are advised to never get into a cab that is already occupied, never let yourself be directed to a particular taxi or taxi stand by a helpful stranger, and always negotiate the fare before getting in. Tell the driver when you get in that you will pay extra so he will not pick up additional fares along the way.
Do not use “Diablos Rojos” recycled school buses.
Drive with your doors locked and windows up. Park in well-lit areas, preferably in lots with security guards.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
The Embassy is located on Ave Demetrio Lakas, in the Clayton Neighborhood of Panama City.
Operating hours: Monday-Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Embassy Contact Numbers
The Embassy's main number is 207-7000.
The Regional Security Officer's number is 207-7160.
The Consular Section’s main number is 207-7332.
For non-Consular after-hours emergencies, call the U.S. Marine Guard Post One at 207-7200.
Register with the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy if you plan to be in Panama for an extended time or if you are traveling extensively. To register, visit https://travelregistration.state.gov/ibrs/ui/. The Consular Section also provides notifications and warnings to Americans in country.
OSAC Country Council Information
U.S. Embassy Panama City has an active OSAC Country Council.
Daniel Arevalo, Procter & Gamble, private sector co-Chair – Arevalo.firstname.lastname@example.org
Christopher Stitt, US Embassy Regional Security Officer – email@example.com