There are few topics more hotly debated in ExPat forums that the issue of how safe Panama is for ExPats. It is an issue a wide range of opinions on, particularly when it comes to a discussion of crime in Panama. When these discussions happen, I tend to side with those who believe that Panama is a safe place for ExPats to live, as long as you use basic common sense. I know that personally, I feel safer every day in Panama than I did while living in the US. But this doesn’t mean that Panama is completely without risks, or that safety isn’t something that any ExPat planning to move to Panama shouldn’t research very thoroughly before moving to Panama. In this article, I will discuss my thoughts on safety in Panama, as well as some tips I have for how to make sure you stay safe. I’ll also not only tackle the issue of crime, but also other safety topics such as pedestrian safety and safety while driving.
One of the big advantages that Panama has for ExPats compared to other Central American is that it is considered relatively safe from a crime perspective. Compared to some other countries in Central America, this is certainly the case. Panama has the third lowest murder rate in Central America, behind Costa Rica and Nicaragua. However, “relatively safe” for Central America is kind of like grading on a curve. While Panama’s murder rate is certainly lower than countries link Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, it is still much higher than in most countries. The murder rate in Panama in 2013 was 17.1 murders per 100,000 people. This compares to a global average of 6.3 and an rate of 4.7 in the United States. However, when you break these numbers down a little further, and also take into account the average ExPat experience in Panama, the actual risk is much smaller than the numbers would indicate.
Murders in Panama tend to be heavily tied to drug trafficking, and primarily effects those who participate in activities linked to drug trafficking. According to former Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Molino, “there were 665 homicides in 2013, and of those 602 were for actions related to drug trafficking and gangs.” I don’t exactly know what “actions related to drugs and gangs” fully encompasses, but it’s clear that the vast majority of murders are related to those activities. 90% by government figures. So that means of murders not related to drug trafficking and gangs, the murder rate was only about 1.7 per 100,000 people. So if you are coming down here to live an honest life (one would hope), then your chance of being murdered is significantly less. I don’t know if civilians killed because of other’s gang activities is included in that 602 number or not, but this is also very unlikely to affect ExPats. For better or worse, Panama’s neighborhoods are very economically segregated, and if you are living in a typical ExPat area, you will be far removed from where these crimes take place.
Whether it’s because of the culture, or because your average Panamanian has less access to guns than they do in the US, but Panama doesn’t see the type of mass shootings that you see in the US. You are not likely to hear about someone going crazy and shooting up a school or mall, or killing their whole family in a murder-suicide. These kinds of killings that are not related to other crime just don’t happen here. To my knowledge, there’s only been one serial killer in Panama in recent memory, who was actually an American who targeted other ExPats. William “Wild Bill” Holbert was arrested with his wife in 2010 for killing 9 people, 7 of them American ExPats. In fact, if you are worried about your personal safety as an ExPat, you are more likely to be targeted by another ExPat than you would a local Panamanian. In the few ExPat murders that have occurred in Panama recently, the culprit is usually another ExPat, not a local Panamanian. So don’t automatically trust someone in Panama just because they are an ExPat, especially if they are trying to get you to “invest” in business dealings. That has cost a few ExPats their life at the hands of other ExPats. But overall, your chance of getting murdered/being a victim of a violent crime is very low as an ExPat in Panama.
Panama does pose a greater risk for ExPats of being victims of robbery/property crime than of a violent crime. Because of the high poverty rate, petty crime and armed robbery are higher here than you would see in most areas in the United States, and certainly than in Western Europe. And since ExPats are known to be wealthier than the average Panamanian, we can be bigger targets for property crime. Recently, there was a string of armed robberies carried out by a gang that targeted popular restaurants frequented by ExPats. The gang was recently broken up, but they successfully targeted over a dozen restaurants before they were stopped. I have also heard reports of armed robberies of cars stopped at traffic lights, as well as a recent string of thefts from cars filling up at gas stations. Your chances of being a victim of a robbery are still small, but it is definitely not uncommon to know at least one ExPat who has been a victim of some sort of theft.
The good news is that possessions are only possessions. They can be replaced. They are much less valuable than your life. If you are the target of a robbery, as long as you comply, it will end safely. The gangs here realize that a lot more police heat comes down on them if they injure and kill someone than if they just steal. It’s a business for them, and they realize that killing is bad for business, so as long as give them what they ask for, your personal safety will not be in danger. Do not try to be a hero and think you’re Rambo and try to fight back, especially if you’re ill-advised enough to carry a gun and try to get in a shootout with your robbers. You are more likely in that situation to put yourself or someone else in danger than you are to protect your safety.
Because of the risk of theft, it is not recommended that you carry large amounts of cash or valuables on you when you are out in Panama. In addition to there being a lot more to lose if you are a victim of a crime, wearing valuable jewelry or flashing a lot of cash increases your chances of being a target. My wife refuses to wear her engagement ring when she is out, because she knows it will make her a target for thefts by people who wouldn’t target her otherwise. We also almost never carry more than $100 in cash with us at any time, so there is never that much to lose.
Traffic accidents are another issue to take into consideration when moving to Panama. According to the latest figures I could find, the number of traffic deaths in Panama was 538 per year for the latest figures reported in 2011. This averages out to a rate of 16.52 per 100,000 people, similar to the murder rate. However, traffic fatalities don’t discriminate based on what activities you are involved in, so they are greater risks to ExPats than being the victim of a murder. This is true in most of the world as well, since the rate of traffic deaths is 18 per 100,000 people globally compared to the homicide rate of 6.3. So Panama is actually slightly safer than the global average when it comes to traffic fatalities (the United States has a rate of 11.6 by comparison). This may sounds counter intuitive based on crazy the driving is in Panama, but I think our saving grace is at least in the city, there’s so much traffic that when people get into accidents, they are not usually moving at a high enough speed for it to cause a fatality.
You will definitely notice a lot of cars that have been in accidents in the city. In fact, it’s rarer to see a car that doesn’t have some kind of dent than to see a car that does. I always joke that when people are buying a car here, to considering buying it “pre-dented” rather than new, since it will likely end up that way anyway. Many of the traffic accidents in the city are minor, and if people get into them, it’s common to get of your car quickly, survey the damage, and move on. Involving the cops is a cumbersome process, and unless it’s serious, most people just move on and live with the damage.
While crime is a bigger risk for people living in Panama City, I actually think traffic accidents are a bigger risk for those outside of the city, particularly those who usually travel on the Carretera Panamericana (Pan-American Highway), where speeds get up to a higher level. Most of the major traffic accidents I read of happen long this road, in the interior of the country.
If you are a driver, make sure to drive safely and responsibly. Don’t speed, and understand that just because you have the legal right of way, it doesn’t mean that the other driver you’re near will respect that, particularly if they are a taxi cab. So you’re better off taking a little longer to get somewhere and letting the crazies pass you than you are trying to challenge them for road supremacy. If you are a passenger in a taxi cab or car service you are somewhat at the mercy of the driver, but always make sure to wear your seatbelt (if the car has one), even if you’re in the back seat. The truth is that even though they drive like maniacs, most cabs are good at avoiding accidents.
Pedestrian safety is definitely something I take seriously in Panama, and it’s probably my biggest safety concern. If you are cautious and responsible when you walk places, you will be fine, but if you are distracted and impatient, you could end up in serious injury or worse. There is a road in Panama City nicknamed “Tumba Muerto” which has several different origin stories, but the one my wife swears is true goes like this: Because of the high number of pedestrians who died while trying to cross the road, they nicknamed it “Tumba (fall over)” “Muerto (Dead).” So it’s definitely something you want to take seriously too.
The first thing to understand as a pedestrian is that you can not expect cars here to stop for you to cross the street. If you are crossing in the middle of the street, outside of a crosswalk, and a car is coming close to you, you are more likely to end up on their hood than you are for them to stop for you. Even in crosswalks, you cannot expect every car to stop for you as they would other places. So if you are planning to cross a street, you are much better off waiting it out until there are no fast moving cars in your vicinity to cross, as opposed to trying to risk it. The one good thing is that Panama does have pedestrian overpasses over most of their big roads, so you can safely use those to cross busy streets. If you are near one, you are legally required to use the overpass to cross the street. According to my wife, if you try to cross without using the overpass and are hit, the driver faces no negative consequences, since you had a safe pass option with the overpass.
In addition to being careful when you cross the street, you also have to be careful when walking on the sidewalks. Sidewalks in Panama are not maintained to the level that most ExPats would be used to if they are coming from another international city. Simply put, the sidewalks are more like obstacle courses than anything. It is very common to find pot holes, partially or fully uncovered manholes and sewer grates, trash and construction debris, rebar jutting out of construction walls next to sidewalks, and loose powerlines hanging down from poles at eye level. Basically, while walking, you have to constantly be aware of your surroundings below, to the side, and above you at all times. While the sidewalks aren’t usually life threatening (although I would hate to see what happens if you run into a live power wire), but I know a number of ExPats with sprained ankles and bumps and bruises because they were not careful when they were walking places. Panama is definitely not a place to be texting away on your phone while you walk places. If you are attentive, you will not have any problems, but being distracted can definitely be hazardous.
Will You Feel Safer in Panama?
This is a question that a lot of ExPats will have a different answer for, depending on where they come from. For me, the answer is a resounding yes. I feel significantly safer living in Panama City than I did living in Tampa, Florida. In Tampa, a lot more crime happened to people I knew and areas I was at than in Panama. A month before I moved here, I lost a friend to a double homicide that she was the victim of inside her house. There was also a shooting at my apartment complex. And I didn’t even live in the bad areas. There were also things that I would read about in our local news that would never happen in Panama, like a shooting where a 72 year-old retired cop in the Tampa Bay area shot and killed someone at a movie theater in an argument over texting. There were also a lot of major traffic accidents, including a guy who killed himself and 4 other people after he stole a car while drunk and intentionally drove 80 miles an hour the wrong way on a highway. So compared to what I used to see in Tampa, the problems in Panama are very minor. In fact, I’m in Tampa this week for work as I’m writing this article, and I definitely feel less safe here than I will when I’m back in Panama.
As to how safe you will personally feel, I think it depends a lot on where you come from. If you are moving from another country in Latin America due to safety concerns there (Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, etc), you will definitely feel significantly safer in Panama than you will in your home countries. I have several Venezuelan and Mexican friends who moved to Panama specifically to escape the safety situations at home, and they do not have any regrets about their move. If you are moving from the United States, I think it will largely depend on where you move from in the US. If you are coming from a major city, like I did, I think you’ll feel safer in Panama. However, if you are coming from a little small town where everyone knows their neighbor and the kids play out in the street, you may face an adjustment when you move to Panama, particularly if you are living in the city. The same goes if you are moving from Western Europe or parts of Asia where violence and crime is basically non-existent. I still do not believe that you will be scared off by the level of the safety in Panama, but it will be an adjustment moving to a country where bad things sometimes happen. If you are vigilant, use common sense, and don’t panic at every instance of crime you see in the news or read on an ExPat forum, I think you will adjust well to Panama.