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Panama 2013 Crime and Safety Report

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. The three provinces with the largest cities had the highest overall crime rates: Panama, Colon, and Chiriqui.  

Violent crime 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. This puts the homicide rate at 18.0 per 100,000 inhabitants for 2012. 

This downward trend was also reflected in crimes involving gun violence overall, but reports of robbery increased by 4.7 percent to 9,465 reported cases in 2012, of which 588 (16.7 percent) involved a firearm. Further, while the actual number of homicides declined, the percentage of homicides attributed to armed robbery grew from nine percent in 2011 to 17 percent in 2012.

The number of reported rapes is up significantly, from 809 reported in 2009 to 1,100 rapes reported in 2012. 

Reports of theft also increased substantially from 18,435 reports in 2011 to 20,098 reported thefts in 2012. 

Reports of burglary remained essentially unchanged with 2,364 reports in 2012. 

Overall Road Safety Situation

Road conditions may differ significantly from those in the United States. Traffic roundabouts are common, and extreme care should be taken when entering and exiting them. Traffic moves on the right as in the U.S., and Panamanian law requires that drivers and passengers wear seat belts. Panama's roads, traffic, and transportation systems are generally safe, but frequently traffic lights do not exist, even at busy intersections.

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.

Flooding during the April-December rainy season occasionally makes city streets impassible and washes out some roads in the country’s interior. In addition, 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. 

Buses and taxis are not always maintained in a safe operating condition due to lack of regulatory enforcement. Public transportation should be used with caution, especially the local city buses in Panama City called Diablos Rojos or "Red Devils." A modern public transit infrastructure, using modern buses, is being rolled out, and the Diablos Rojos are being retired. 

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. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) operates in parts of Panama’s Darien province. The Secretary of State has designated the FARC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Civil Unrest 

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 or aggression has been used against the police. Demonstrations and marches can and do occur 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, which have been the scenes of protests.

Protestors have blocked remote roadways and the PanAmerican highway on an intermittent basis since February 2012, sometimes for periods lasting several days and sometimes 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 a real possibility. U.S. citizens traveling by road outside Panama City should travel with full fuel tanks, keep extra potable water and food in their vehicles, 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 one of the local indigenous groups 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 cocktail-improvised incendiary devices and firearms against anti-riot police. Subsequent indigenous protests have not seen these levels of violence.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards 

Environmental hazards include the possibility of earthquakes (though the central corridor of Panama is a lower seismic risk than either Colombia or Costa Rica, several fault lines are present and small earthquakes do occur in western Panama) and flooding caused by the torrential rains, particularly toward the end of the rainy season in October/November. 

Industrial and Transportation Accidents 

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

Privacy Concerns

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 only allowed to travel to the restricted border areas of the Darien 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 Panamanian north coast bounded by Boca de Rio Chiriquí on the west and Coclé Del Norte on the east and stretching inward from the coast for five kilometers. 

Drug-related Crimes

Panama reported seizing 34.06 metric tons of drugs in 2012. This number is down from the 2010 high of 54.24 metric tons. The increase and subsequent decrease in violent crime from 2007-2012 has paralleled the increase and decrease of drug seizures. To wit, 23 percent of the homicides recorded in 2012 were attributed to organized crime (particularly drug trafficking organizations), down from 32 percent in 2011.

Kidnapping Threats

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.

Police Response 

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. 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

The Panamanian National Police (PNP) created a special unit (Tourism Police) 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, the telephone operators may not speak English. Most police officers speak very little English. 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 or “denuncia.”

Various Police/Security Agencies 

In addition to the Panamanian National Police, other law enforcement/security entities include the National Infrastructure Protection Service (SPI) that has functions similar to the United States Secret Service; the National Frontier Service (SENAFRONT) that is similar to the U.S. Border Patrol; and the Naval/Air Service (SENAN) that is similar to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Medical Emergencies

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. 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

For health precautions, please visit on the CDC website at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/panama.

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Crimes/Scams

There is a continuing risk of various types of fraud schemes, the most common being 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.

Watch out for con artists who pose as U.S. citizens in distress and who ask for financial assistance.

Areas to be Avoided and Best Security Practices

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.

Keep a low personal profile. Do not flash cash or wear expensive jewelry.

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.

Keep your smart phone on your person, preferably covered with a jacket or shirt.

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 the public buses, especially the “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/Consulate Address and Hours of Operation 

The Embassy is located on Ave Demetrio Lakas, in the Clayton Neighborhood of Panama City. Operating Hours are 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/Consulate Contact Numbers

The Embassy's main number is 207-7000, and 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. 
The Regional Security Officer's number is 207-7160.

Be sure to 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

Panama City has an active Country Council.

Daniel Arevalo, Procter & Gamble, OSAC Country Council President – Arevalo.d.2@pg.com
Christopher Stitt, U.S. Embassy Regional Security Officer – stittcc@state.gov