Wrestling with Crime & Punishment

Crime is a problem in much of the world, to varying degrees, and even the paradise of Panama is not exempt.  Every country wrestles with issues of crime prevention and punishment and trying to weigh punishment and its effect on crime.  That situation, if you accept the Biblical account literally, begins in the Garden of Eden and has continued since.  No paradise is exempt.  And no one has the perfect system.  Everyone tries to scam the system, by whatever name it is called, including criminals, politicians, judges and police, for their own benefit.  It is a mess … and always has been.

Panama finds itself geographically caught in the middle between a country, Colombia, that produces an agricultural crop used to make drugs that are illegal in much of the world. Led by the US, and followed by most of the rest of the developed world, there is an insatiable desire for the end product, cocaine.  So right in the middle of the supply route is Panama and the rest of Central America.  To me the obvious solution is for the consumer countries to say, “Yes drugs kill … as does alcohol and tobacco.  We don’t want kids to use these things.  We want to educate consenting adults to the consequences of abuse, and we may want to legislate the production and sale of all these drugs, and tax the hell out of them, but what you do, is your decision.”

I know Obama has a lot on his plate for his final year in office.  But Obama has admitted that he experimented with drugs as a kid, got steered away in positive directions, and so ended up in the White House and not in prison.  He’s said he wants to tackle the prison problem in the US and part and parcel of that is dealing with the drug problem and decriminalization.  The time is now … not just for the US, but for the rest of the Americas as well, and much of the rest of the world.

Drugs and gangs have been epidemic in much of Latin America and, along with the poverty that breeds drugs and gangs, are at the root of much criminal behavior.  We’re never going to be able to get rid of crimes of passion or greed.  The spurned lover and international bank shysters are always going to be with us, but we can do something about drugs and gangs.

So Panama, like everywhere else, fights the twin evils of drugs and gangs.  And until recently those of us in Boquete have kind of enjoyed an exemption.  When we first came to Panama somone stuck a hand-lettered sign along the two-lane road between David and Boquete that read, “If you want to see Boquete, see it quickly.” Many predicted that a four-land highway, while making life much easier, would become a freeway for criminals.  Spend $18 to get from Panama City to David for a few nights, and you can increase your investment  a hundred fold!  So recently we’ve had a mini-wave of assaults and armed robberies, many assumed to be by juveniles working for adult gang members.  Targets have been Panamanians and expats.  For locals and expats who have been here a while, this is a new phenomenon which locally has gotten a lot of attention and definitely rattled the cages of the powers that be.

David is growing dramatically, now probably the second largest city in Panama.  With that growth has come increasing crime.  Gangs see David and surrounds as a growth opportunity.  So David has contributed to the spread of the problem into other areas of Chiriqui.  Boquete is, next to Panama City, is the number one tourist destination in Panama.  Tourists make good targets for criminals all over the world.

So we no longer live in our little cacoon of perceived “safety.”

Unfortunately some local expats, for whatever reasons, have seemed to want to jump on a bandwagon of local crime, since things may, or may not be, what they experienced at home, or expected in Panama.  I’ve always recognized that there is no “safe” place on earth, not even paradise.  When we came here eleven years ago, people were hyping that “Brinks” rated Panama as the safest place to retire.  I could never find just what “Brinks” they were talking about, or where this rating could be found.  But like a lot of claims — fantastic Pensionado discounts on everything, local hospitals “affiliated” with some of the most prestigious hospitals in the world — you have to search to find out what it means in real life.  Some of this stuff has been repeated so often that it is just accepted without question.  I’ve been critical of the Pensionado discount program and local hospitals, and I’ve discovered that “affiliated” may be something as innocuous as having a doctor from the prestige hospital in the States come and lecture in Panama.

I’ve actually been playing around with this post for a while, thinking and pondering, before posting.  But a few recent things got my attention.

October 27th at the regular Tuesday Morning Meeting after the Tuesday Morning Market featured the mayor of Boquete, the new chief of police, and the Minister of Security.  The President of Panama was waiting in the wings apparently but got called away.  A top-level meeting with the President had taken place in David the day prior to discuss revising the plans and programs for security in this region of the country. 

The mayor, police chief, and Minister of Security presented a detailed program putting crime in Chiriqui into perspective with the crime problems in the country as a whole and in Central America.  The following was reported on our local Panama News email system …

Panama spends about $1 billion on criminal justice every year. And yet, it takes one year to investigate a crime, three years to bring it to trial and then 95% of the cases are dropped or found not guilty. Of those convicted and sent to prison, 65% return to a life of crime after release. The entire prosecutorial system needs an overhaul.
Since Varela has taken office, new crime initiatives have reduced the gang murder and violence rates by 50% in one year, primarily in Panama and Colon provinces. After peaking in 2007, crime held fairly steady, and is now decreasing across the board, with the exception of domestic violence, for which new GPS bracelets are being introduced to keep offenders away from their victims. 
 With the broken prosecutorial system, they realized that a new approach to crime reduction was needed – prevention. This comes in the form of co-opting the gangs, offering them alternatives. He said that gang members know that staying in the gangs means death by age 25 and most are actually eager to get out. This approach has been used successfully in New York City and other countries. Panama is modeling its program after those successes. 
The program involves four steps: subverting the gangs – offering members a way out. getting the gang members into vocational training (and dealing with mental health issues), labor reinsertion – ten percent of public construction project labor is to be provided by the ex-gang members, monitoring to ensure compliance and provide guidance.


So far more than 4,000 gang members have been recruited, mainly in Panama City and Colon. Both places have seen marked drops in murder and violence. Thousands more are entering the program in the coming year. 
At the same time, in 2013, 5 gangs were prosecuted and put in prison, while so far in 2015, 33 gangs have been broken up. However, using the conversion process, they have broken up more than 150 gangs, so the process is both cheaper and more effective than just incarceration. 
According to the Minister of Security, President Varela insists on cost justifying everything. When asked to justify increased spending on security, the Minister said, to paraphrase, “Well you just spent $3 billion on a transit system that was number three on the concerns of Panamanians. Crime is number one – how much are you spending on that?”
He also described a nationwide camera system that is being contracted for, 2,000 cameras across the country, built by a British firm [the British are the video security kings of the world], which will allow police to zero in on crimes in progress,  track license numbers and trace the car’s movement back through time, days or weeks before, face recognition and more. He said that the face recognition system in Tucomen airport had already caught more than a hundred criminals. 
Panama is not getting enough out of its police forces. Most Latin American countries have between 1.5 and 2.5 police per 1,000 people. The international norm is 3. Panama has 6 policemen per 1000 people. Many are assigned to desk duty rather than what they were trained for. So the current administration is moving them out to the streets, but it is a long process involving 30,000 public service employees and almost a billion dollar budget. 
Minister Rodolfo said that the ban on gun imports would be lifted in January, 2016. However, he and Varela are not totally agreed on the licensing strategy. Rodolfo said that 80% of violent gun attacks in the US are by people with a prior history of violence. Therefore, he favors a shorter registration process but much more detailed background checks. 

On Crimes by Minors ..The short answer is that Panama’s laws are based on a UN treaty for treatment of minors. Rodolfo got his Master’s Degree in England and is quite sophisticated in his understanding of European thinking. In those countries with advanced social safety nets, minors who commit crimes are shunted to social welfare agencies. In Panama, we have none of that and they are out on the street.

UN treaties supercede national law, so getting it changed will be difficult.  [See update note from Bonnie Williams at end of blog]

With this in view (and the sorry state of the prosecutorial system), the gang intervention strategy looks better and better. We have to look for strategies to prevent crime in the first place. Turn the young people away from the gangs and make our houses unattractive targets. Friends don’t let friends live in unsafe houses.

Panama, like the rest of the world, wrestles with how to deal with the criminal people involved … this came from an interesting site called Insight Crime

The ‘Guantanamo Bay of Panama’ Prison Raises Human Rights Concerns

Written by Jonathan Lawrence Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The remote island prison dubbed the Guantanamo Bay of Panama houses the country’s most dangerous prisoners, but concerns are mounting over harsh conditions and human rights violations occurring behind the prison’s impregnable walls.

In March 2015, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela announced that the soon to be inaugurated Punta Coco prison would help break the grip of Panamanian crime bosses and reduce the violence they cause by severing their ties with the outside world.

The new maximum security facility houses just six inmates at an anti-narcotics naval base on Isla del Rey, a island over a hundred kilometers off the coast from Panama City that has four towns and a population of around 1,600 full-time residents. The prison is not even considered part of Panama’s Ministry of Government-run penitentiary system, but is instead administered by the Ministry of Public Security. The prisoners are officially in the custody of the National Air and Naval Service (SENAN) and the National Border Service (SENAFRONT).

Punta Coco’s six inmates are primarily being held on charges of drug and weapons trafficking, terrorism against the state, and homicide. (See table below) They were transferred to the island covertly with no advance warning for the prisoners or their families. Although government officials have at one point claimed the prisoners had requested the transfer for their own protection, the message put out by President Varela and his director of the penitentiary system has been another; the intention was to sever the ties between the six and their cohorts on the outside, who officials claim carry out crimes on their orders.

The prison’s isolated location also guards against escapes. There has been an alarming spike in jailbreaks recently, most notably in June when six inmates escaped from La Joyita prison, and half of the Punta Coca inmates have previously escaped custody.

The Prisoners of Punta Coco

Carlos Mosquera
Mosquera was linked in March 2015 to a seizure of 320 kilograms of cocaine on a farm in the town of Sajalices in Panama. He also allegedly belongs to a network involved in the “tumbe” (theft) of drug shipments.

Clifford Alfonso Hylton Patterson
Patterson is being held for his alleged role in robberies of banks and other businesses as well as for escaping from the La Joyita penitentiary center in June 2015.

Jose Cossio
Cossio was captured in Costa Rica and extradited to Panama in 2015. He is head of the gang Calor Calor, one of Panama’s most powerful. Cossio allegedly robbed $2.4 million from the Bank of China in Panama’s Colon Free Zone in 2005. He is also being held for the murder of a Panamanian beauty contestant, drug trafficking, and for escaping from La Joya prison.

Jose Camargo
Camargo is the leader of the gang Bagdad, the arch rival of Calor Calor. In 2014, he allegedly gave the order to murder two children and their parents in the coastal city of La Chorrera, Panama despite having been held in the National Police’s headquarters in the town of Ancon since 2013.

Dangelo Dayan Ramirez Ramea
Ramirez allegedly took part in the 2005 robbery of the Bank of China with Cossio. He has also been arrested for drug trafficking, money laundering, personal injury, extortion, and other crimes. According to police records, he is also the ringleader of a local criminal organization.

Azael Ramos
Ramos is being held for drug and weapons trafficking, weapons possession, and murder, among other charges. He has escaped from police custody twice before; the first time was in 2008 when he escaped from La Joyita, and the second time was in 2010 when he escaped from Santo Tomas Hospital in Panama City while receiving treatment. He was a fugitive for two months following his first escape, but managed to elude authorities for two years after his second escape.

Enrique Edwin Jaen Cherigo*
Jaen Cherigo was reportedly the driver of the car involved in a fatal hit-and-run of a celebrated Panamanian cyclist. He later fled to the interior of Panama, where he was captured in the city of Santiago. Jaen Cherigo has also been linked to the gang El Pentagono.

*Unlike the other prisoners on the island whose presence has been confirmed, it is unclear whether Jaen Cherigo is currently being detained at Punta Coco, as the director of the National Police has not given a specific date for his transfer to the island.

Alleged Human Rights Abuses

Punta Coco’s moniker of “Panama’s Guantanamo Bay” does not just stem from its navel base island location where prisoners are held outside of normal jurisdictions. There are also complaints of human rights abuses.

A recent visit to the prison by Panamanian Ombudsman Lilia Herrera produced a damning report and a recommendation to immediately transfer out the prisoners and close the prison. According to Herrera, the prison violated international conventions and pacts on human rights, particularly the American Convention on Human Rights and the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, which prevent and sanction torture and all other types of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of prisoners.

The Ombudsman’s report detailed how the prisoners’ cells were dangerously hot due to the concrete construction’s absorption of the blistering tropical heat, with ventilation limited to a small window on the cell’s metal door for passing food to the prisoners. She added that the prisoners’ health is further put at risk by the proliferation of mosquitoes on the island and the prison’s inadequate medical care.

Herrera was most critical of the government’s efforts to isolate the prisoners, reporting how they are locked in their cells for nearly 24 hours a day and are not permitted to communicate with one another. She said that the prisoners are allotted a mere 40 minutes outside of their cell but not on a daily basis, as they are only freed from their cells when they need to wash their clothes. Furthermore, the prison’s strict prohibition on social interaction among the prisoners means that they are kept apart at all times. She also added that the isolation and inaccessibility of Punta Coco deprives the six prisoners of their fundamental right of access to the judicial system,

The United Nations has also raised concerns, with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture and the chair of its Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calling conditions “inhumane and degrading.” The UN representatives urged the Panamanian government to immediately cease the transfer of prisoners to Punta Coco over grave concerns about the inmates’ inability to prepare an adequate defense due to the distance and cost of traveling to the island. They also expressed apprehension over the shackling of the prisoners’ hands and feet during visits, the prisoners’ frequent stomach ailments, the lack of electrical lighting, and the continuous use of solitary confinement, which they said should be used only as a last resort.

The families of the prisoners have also launched their own protests calling for the closure of the facility, which they called a “cruel system from the past,” and complained how the government had not warned them their family members were about to be confined to a distant island.

Despite Pressure, Government Remains Firm
On August 30, the Punta Coco inmates began a hunger strike, saying the prison violated their rights and had no basis in the law. Meanwhile, on the mainland, critics are already highlighting the lack of results of the trade-off of human rights for security. But so far, the government has held firm.

In September, the director of the Penitentiary System of Panama (SPP), Gabriel Pinzon, defended the prison on TV news program Radar. There were no human rights being violated inside, he said, but it was necessary to keep the prisoners isolated so they could not order more crimes. However, he did offer a glimpse of hope for those calling for the prison’s closure, saying it was a “transitory” measure whose legality will soon be decided by the Supreme Court, he said.

Until that time or until the government cedes to its critics, Punta Coco will remain a stark symbol of how Panama’s government is willing to compromise on human rights for security — even when the promised gains are far from certain. [INSIGHT CRIME]

Following up …

I received this carefully crafted response from my Boquete neighbor Bonnie Williams which I am including because several items need to be highlighted for emphasis and the response tab doesn’t allow that format. From Bonnie …

Largely as a result of the remarks by the Minister of Security cited above, a lot has been made lately of the UN treaty constraining the incarceration of minors in adult jails and prisons. This rationale seemed suspect to me from the inception since I know there are countries that are parties to the UN treaty, the United States and Canada included, that allow for the imprisonment of minors for certain specified offenses. I was impelled to do a little research, and this is what I found.

The treaty at issue, adopted September 2, 1990, is formally called Convention on the Rights of the Child. The particular artocle of the treaty at issue is as follows [emphasis mine]:

Article 37 States Parties shall ensure that:

(a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed  by persons below eighteen years of age;

(b) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time;

( c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child’s best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances;

(d) Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance, as well as the right to challenge the legality of the deprivation of his or her liberty before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority, and to a prompt decision on any such action.

It is significant that imprisonment of a child must be in conformity with the law of that country. I can envision no circumstances when it would be in a child’s best interest to be incarcerated with adults, so the meaning of that particular phrase escapes me, but this subsection clearly provides an exception for what may be considered exceptional circumstances. The upshot of this, as I read it, is that a country that is a party to the treaty may adopt a law defining under what exceptional circumstances a child may be considered an adult. This would be in conformance with the situation in many countries that have embraced the UN’s treaty and aims. I would note that the entire treaty carries with it a significant international oversight to ensure that its provisions are enforced and, presumably, that exceptions such as those noted above are defined narrowly and in conformance with the overall aim of the treaty.It is important that both Panamanians and expats understand this and that Panamanian authorities not be allowed to use the UN treaty as an excuse for not adopting stricter laws against juvenile offenders. I encourage everyone to cite the actual provisions of the treaty when communicating with lawmakers and the Minister, as we all have been encouraged to do.

Unfortunately we are not alone …

The Canadian government recently updated its recommendation to citizens visiting Costa Rica warning them that while “… There is no nationwide advisory in effect for Costa Rica. However, you should exercise a high degree of caution due to increasing levels of violent crime.. ”

Crhoy.com reports that “… The National Chamber of Tourism (Canatur) issued a warning a few weeks ago about thefts and robberies against tourists in some of the most frequented areas such as Manuel Antonio, Limon and Jaco. Police officials blamed that the ‘over-confidence’ of some visitors. ”

“… The US Embassy warned that “crime is increasing in Costa Rica and US citizens are frequent victims’.

Again, US demand for illegal drugs is disrupting, and some would say destroying, the traditional societies of Latin America by supporting and encouraging transport of illegal drugs and the accompanying gang problems.

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