How safe is Panama? Part II

As I mentioned in Part I, there is nowhere in the world that is absolutely “safe.”  Even if you choose to remain locked behind bars in your own home … the gas line may explode, a sinkhole may open up under your home, a tornado may strike, or a truck or plane may crash into your home.  In Panama, as anywhere, there are some places that are “safer” than others.  Where we live, in the Chiriqui mountains in Boquete it is VERY safe.  You can walk anywhere at night … as long as you carry a flashlight or wear reflective clothing where there are no sidewalks … in safety.

Kat had written …

“Can you please comment on Stig Larsen and generally on violence against ex pats and on drug violence in Panama. These issues have a lot of influence on our decision to retire in your new home country.”

I’ll tell you the story of Stig in a moment.  First a few observations …

There is comparatively little violent crime in Panama.  Like anywhere else most murders are committed by someone known to or related to the victim.  Many are crimes of passion.  Most crimes in Panama are committed against Panamanians, not expats.  Sometimes expats come to Panama with the idea that they are so “wealthy” that they may be targets of crime.  Most expats living in Panama would, at best, fall in the Panamanian upper middle class.  There is a big disparity between the wealthy and the poor in Panama, and the wealthy folks here are REALLY wealthy.  In my humble opinion the biggest “crime” against expats is the dual pricing system sometimes encountered of “gringo prices” and “local prices.”

Most of the drug-related crimes are committed against people involved one way or another in the illegal drug trade.  Stay on the straight and narrow and you’ll avoid 99.9% of the drug-related crimes.  Drug violence in Panama is nowhere near that of other Central American countries.  The real problem of drug violence throughout Central America is the US “War on Drugs” which makes the illegal drug trade so profitable for drug lords … and, of course, US lawyers and judges, police departments, and prisons.  Start to decriminalize “soft” drugs and focus on “hard” drugs and much of the problem will be eliminated.  Plus, like in Colorado and Washington, intelligent states that have decriminalized and now tax pot, there will be a flood of new tax revenue.

OK … Stig Larsen.  I think the poster is referring to Stig Pederson, a 72 year-old Danish man.   Home invaders seized Pederson and his and his 32-year old Panamanian wife threw them both in Pederson’s boat and set sail.  They badly beat Pederson and his Panamanian wife was able to jump out of the boat, get away, and alert police. Their home was ransacked and trashed.  Pederson was hospitalized for his injuries and eventually was well enough to return to a second home in David, where he died.  This is a truly horrible story, but it does, however, lead one to wonder if there is something “more” to the story.  These kind of horrible events can happen everywhere, including Panama.  I believe it is an isolated event to a man who happened to be an expat with a wife who was Panamanian.

I sometimes think that occasionally there are expats who are looking to make some kind of point about crime almost as if every story that comes along somehow excites them and leads them to fantasize all kinds of dire scenarios.

We had a great tragedy earlier this year in Boquete.  Two beautiful, blond, blue-eyed, Dutch women in their early 20s came to Boquete to study Spanish with the intent of also volunteering for community service.  One evening they left without a guide, without wilderness experience, and without supplies at 4 pm to hike a difficult trail in the jungle that surrounds much of Boquete.  The next day the home where they were staying realized the women were missing.  Local search parties were organized, then massive government search parties and helicopters were dispatched.  The women were not found.  Weeks of searching went on without success.  The Netherlands sent over a team of searchers and specially trained rescue dogs.  Nothing.  The weeks dragged into months. There were missing posters all over.  Imaginations ran wild:kidnapped, murdered, taken to harvest organs, white slavery.  The case was the buzz of the Boquete Internet bulletin boards.

Months later some Indigenous on the other side of the Isthmus found a soggy backpack lodged in the rocks beside a river that contained the Dutch passport of one of the girls. They hiked up the mountain 8 HOURS to Boquete to turn the backpack into police.  No one had imagined these women could possibly have made it 8 hours into the jungle.  So a new, intensive search was launched.  Searchers found a boot of a type only made and sold in the Netherlands from which they were able to extract DNA to match one of the women, and part of a hip bone was found further down the river matching the DNA of the other woman.  To the best of my knowledge additional remains have not been found.

This is a horrible story.  Nobody will ever know for sure exactly what happened although it is likely that the women got lost in the jungle and maybe tired, alone, and hungry made a series of unfortunate decisions, maybe assuming the river would flow back to Boquete and not to the Atlantic, or perhaps they attempted to cross a swollen river … nobody will know.  It is a jungle out there and that jungle still has jaguars, which next to lions and tigers are the largest wild cats.

But undoubtedly the story of the two missing Dutch “girls” will undoubtedly provide fodder for tabloid-style “missing in Panama” stories for years to come, always, of course implying foul play.  [See note below]

Many of the most “dangerous” criminals in Panama … have turned out to be expats!

In the “white-collar” category … When we lived in Valle Escondido there was a family that lived up the road from us.  He was a business man and he promised fantastic return on investments … far better than anything else available at the time, so people invested.  He cut up the garage in his home to make additional bedrooms for the young men who worked all hours of the day and night online, presumably tracking his investment portfolio.  Things unwound when he received a package of illegal diamonds from Africa.  He had claimed the diamonds were worth something like $70K when in fact the value was more like $1.7M!  Nice guy … hoping to avoid the law he had sent the package of diamonds to his 2-year-old son.  Needless to say Panama send him and his boiler room guys packing and the folks who invested lost out.

Then of course there are the developers and builders who went belly up taking their clients funds with them.  The folks from England who went back home when the houses they built started sliding over the cliff.  Or the guy who promised that his American system of building would save folks money if folks paid 80% of the cost of construction up front … and people did this [!!] and assumed the progress photos he emailed them showing the progress on “their” house were legit!

And then there is the expat crook to top them all … “Wild Bill.”  Sometimes expat communities attract people who can only be called “larger than life” characters.  Wild Bill was one.  He and his wife came to Central America, living in Costa Rica, even Boquete, and finally ending up in Bocas del Torro where Wild Bill had a unique bar and bed and breakfast where gringos liked to hang out.  It had a kind of pirate theme and even had a sign above the bar reading something to the effect that “People who check in here never check out!”  Turned out to be true!

Wild Bill’s modus operandi was to befriend other gringos and find out where they kept the bearer bonds for their property.  [Bearer bonds were a popular way to structure anonymous corporations where your name never appeared and whoever had the bearer bonds in their possession controlled and owned the property.]  Once he knew where the bearer bonds were located, Wild Bill just took people out, killed them, disposed of the body, and took their property as his own.

In many expat communities folks come and go without any formal notification to their friends.  They may head back home to wherever for a few months, disappear from view, and then they are back.  This is particularly true in a community like Bocas where you’ve got folks living on boats and coming and going.  Wild Bill’s scheme unraveled when relatives of one gal living in Bocas fell out of sight and her relatives back home were unable to contact her.  She was “missing.”  They contacted a former US Army investigator, now retired and living in Panama, named Don Winner who runs a Web site called Panama-Guide.com.  Winner set his teeth in the case like an angry bulldog and wouldn’t let go.  Eventually, working with Panama authorities, he broke the case wide open and Wild Bill and his wife have been sitting in jail for several years awaiting trail on numerous murder charges.

There was a time when folks on the lam from the law in the US or elsewhere thought they could get lost and reinvent themselves in Panama.  No more.  Panama police carry something called the “Pele Police,” a handheld device that immediately connects them to Panamanian, US, Canadian and Interpol data bases.  If you are wanted, you will be found and swiftly deported to face the music at home.  And if the Pele Police doesn’t get you, your neighbors will!  Panama’s expat version of the “nosey neighbor” is that when someone new comes to town everyone gets on Google to do the research and find out just who they are … and were.  [OK, go ahead …]

Next time I’ll share a little with you about our experience with safety in Panama.

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