Overall Crime and Safety Situation
U.S. Embassy Panama City does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The ACS Unit cannot recommend a particular individual or location and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.
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.
Please review OSAC’s Panama-specific webpage for proprietary analytic reports, Consular Messages, and contact information.
The crime threat in Panama is significant, and practicing common sense security habits is a must. Panama remains relatively safe when compared to other Central American countries, yet crime rates are still higher than one would encounter in most of the U.S. Crimes include shootings, rapes, armed robberies, muggings, purse-snatchings, and thefts. The provinces with the largest cities also had the highest overall crime rates: Panama, Colon, Herrera, and Chiriquí.
According to statistics from the Panamanian National Police (Policia Nacional de Panama, PNP), the overall homicide rate fell from 434 (2015) to 368 (2016). This continues a steadily downward trend. Reports of armed robberies fell from 6,087 (2015) to 5,777 (2016). Petty theft also decreased, with 18,877 cases (2015) versus 15,796 cases (2016). These are positive signs; however, crime, and especially non-confrontational crime, remains a problem. There was a sharp spike in violent and nonviolent robberies beginning in July 2016, reaching its peak in September and thereafter declining through December. At its height, this seasonal increase in robberies is approximately 58% higher than the annual average. Actual crime statistics may be higher than listed, due to lack of reporting in some rural provinces.
Residential burglaries remain 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 burglaries stand out as an issue that affect even relatively affluent areas.
- In the Albrook neighborhood of Panama City, there were multiple residential crime incidents in 2016, including the break-in of an Embassy officer’s residence and several thefts from yards and curtilage.
Another significant problem is thefts from vehicles. Most thefts from vehicles are crimes of opportunity, targeting vehicles with visible high-value items, bags, and purses. Although the numbers of reported cases is down from 2015, this is still a pervasive problem.
Areas of Concern
RSO has identified high-crime areas in Panama City and throughout the country that have the potential to be relatively more dangerous. These are commonly lower income areas and/or areas of increased gang activity with a lower police presence.
- The high crime areas 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, Panama Viejo, and the Madden Dam Overlook.
- Colon is a high-crime area; travelers should use extreme caution when there.
- RSO and Chief of Mission (COM) have designated the Mosquito Coast (Caribbean side) and the Darién region (Colombian border) as 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. Sections of this coastline are reportedly used for narco-trafficking and other 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, there have been reports of Colombian narco-terrorist groups, drug traffickers, and other criminals operating in area.
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Roads, traffic, and transportation systems are generally safe, but frequently traffic lights do not exist, even at busy intersections. Traffic moves on the right (as in the U.S.), and 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. Use caution when driving at night, as it is particularly hazardous on the old Panama City-Colon highway. Defensive driving is fundamental. For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.”
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 poorly maintained and lack illumination at night. These roads are generally less traveled, and the availability of emergency roadside assistance is very limited.
Travelers should carry identification with them and be prepared for unannounced checkpoints, especially at night. Police periodically conduct vehicle checkpoints at key intersections in the city in an effort to raise their visibility and hamper criminals’ movements through high-crime areas.
Public Transportation Conditions
Public transportation should be used with caution. While there are reports of thefts and pickpocketing, new metro buses, with bigger windows and better lighting, have been introduced and, according to PNP reports, seem to have reduced the 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, one should use established taxi stands when possible. There are two types of taxis: regular taxis are yellow and tourist taxis are white.
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 but only pick up passengers in front of well-known hotels and airports. One should 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 a receipt is provided via email. Nevertheless, despite these advantages, common sense safety precautions should be practiced whenever using any hired transport.
The first rail line of the Metro de Panama system started operation in April 2014. Not all of the stations are operational, and trains will not stop at a station until construction is complete. The metro, though equipped with state-of-the-art security features, will traverse and stop 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.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED PANAMA CITY AS BEING A LOW-THREAT LOCATION FOR TERRORIST ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
Transnational terrorism is not considered to be a significant threat in Panama City. However, travelers should be aware of the State Department's periodic Worldwide Caution announcement reemphasizing the threat of terrorist actions and violence against Americans and interests abroad.
Panama has had no recorded acts of transnational terrorism. Panama’s strategic location as a gateway between Central and South America make it vulnerable to illicit practices. Furthermore, Panama was the first Latin American country to join the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. Panama has been mentioned in ISIS propaganda and threats.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED PANAMA CITY 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 (students’ rights, labor disputes) or, on rare occasions, manifestations of anti-American 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 roadways are blocked. Demonstrations and marches can and do occur around the country, to include in Colon and along the Pan-American Highway.
Protests outside of the city have caused road closures on major thoroughfares that can last for days. During these extended road closures, the security situation can be tense, and the potential for violence between authorities and protestors is possible. Local news and police may be consulted for the most recent information on possible road closures.
Indigenous people 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 resulted in major disruptions to travel and violent confrontations with the police.
Earthquakes occur. The central corridor of Panama is at a lower seismic risk than Colombia and Costa Rica; however, there are several fault lines in Panama. There have been two recorded earthquakes as recently as January 2016.
During the rainy season, torrential rains, particularly in October-December, cause mudslides, road closures, and flooding. Strong winds and rains caused by Hurricane Otto also felled trees and caused landslides and power outages and have caused several fatalities.
Industrial and transportation accidents are a concern, particularly for truck traffic on the highways. 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 being transported.
The Panama Canal Authority has requirements in place to mitigate potential accidents and regularly practices emergency response procedures.
Because of the insular nature of the business community, it is not uncommon for proprietary information to become public. Panama has an adequate, effective domestic legal framework to protect and enforce intellectual property rights, though there are occasional complaints of violations, especially in the Colon Free Zone.
Privacy concerns include the vulnerability of cyber infrastructure that contains personally identifiable information.
Panama reported seizing approximately 68 metric tons of drugs in 2016, up from 58 metric tons in 2015. By far, the drug seized most by quantity was cocaine (62 tons). In a distant second was marijuana (5.5 tons).
The cases of kidnapping recorded by the PNP showed a significant increase for 2016. The cases increased by 57% or from 14 (2015) to 22 (2016). None of these kidnapping cases resulted in homicide or serious injury. The majority of these cases are so-called express kidnappings from ATM banking facilities, in which the victim is briefly held and robbed after withdrawing cash from an ATM.
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 to pay any bribe (unless threatened with the use of force), and if the request persists, ask to speak with a supervisor. Such extortion attempts can be reported to American Citizen Services.
Crime Victim Assistance
The PNP have a special Tourism Police Unit to deal with crimes against tourists and foreigners. The PNP have sub-stations in all major regions in Panama and numerous offices in Panama City. Their performance and responsiveness to incidents involving Americans has been good, if not always timely. The main police number is 104; however, 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.
Victims of crime should report to the local Judicial Investigative Directorate (DIJ) office to lodge an official complaint (denuncia). Americans should lodge a denuncia, even if time has passed, as criminals often repeat the same crime within the same general location. A denuncia is strongly recommended when an American passport has been lost/stolen.
In addition to the Panamanian National Police (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).
In a life-threatening emergency, go directly to the nearest hospital emergency room or call an ambulance. Panama City has excellent trauma hospitals; however, most other communities have lesser services, facilities, and/or clinics. Ambulance service outside the urban centers is non-existent. For medical emergencies call 911 and for fire emergencies call 103.
Contact Information for Available Medical Services
Hospital Emergency Rooms