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Looking Forward to a Safe and Secure 2016


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Looking Forward to a Safe and Secure 2016

January 1, 2015 by Dr. Sleepwell

2015 was a year of turmoil for expats in Chiriqui. However, I believe we will mark 2015 as a turning point in our collective security from crime - for the community, for us as individuals, for the police and even the politicians. 

Taking Responsibility

The response of the community, individuals and the police to the 2015 uptick in crime (especially the violent home invasions) has been unique in our short history. Collectively, I would call it taking responsibility.

As I have pointed out many times, the police can only swing into action after a crime has been committed. It is up to all of us, working individually and together, to prevent crime from happening and to actively and promptly report it when it does. 

Let’s take a quick look at some of the successes that made us more secure in 2015:

Citizens Take Control

One of the most striking advances this year is the rise of community policing in Alto Boquete and the canyon communities. Citizen leaders in Santa Lucia, los Brisas, Emerald Drive, Alto Dorado and other neighborhoods are deploying walkie-talkie networks, community camera systems and ad-hoc WhatsApp texting networks, which include the police. Suspicious cars and people are regularly photographed, reported and even followed in vehicles. 

Citizens are taking control of their communities.

Along with much improved police presence, these steps send a clear message to the criminals:  

This is OUR community, we know who you are, we do not fear you and you are not welcome here.

A couple of short examples demonstrate the effectiveness of the new spirit of community security:

An Evening in Alto Boquete

An expat and is family were enjoying an evening together when a perimeter alarm went off, followed by security lights coming on. They observed three men circling the house apparently preparing an attack, which could very well have been violent. A big alarm was set off and the invaders realized that they have been detected and disrupted. As they fled down the street, the residents observed them getting into a waiting cab at the intersection. 

Meanwhile, one Spanish-speaking family member called the DIJ (police investigative) office, not two blocks away. Three officers responded, intercepted the cab and took the group into custody. Video cameras at the residents’ house provided positive identification of the criminals and their intentions. 

Even though they weren't charged (no crime was committed), these criminals had their worst fear realized - identification. Now the cops (and the residents) know who they are and will pay them a visit any time some crime is committed in the area. 

The Rumble in Cuesta Piedra

The scenario is familiar - a two kilometer dirt road leading to a house occupied by a single woman. On Thanksgiving night, workers living near the property observed a suspicious car with three men headed for the unoccupied house. They came out and confronted the intruders. Realizing that they have been detected and disrupted, the intruders turned the car around and attempted to flee. Finding the gate closed by the workers, they drove through a ditch to get away. 

Returning to the house, the workers discovered a forth burglar organizing the items to be stolen and waiting for the car that never came. He was chased down, captured and tied up.

A community alert is sent out. Rodny was called to coordinate the police response. An ad-hoc WhatsApp network was activated. Thus alerted, another citizen reported seeing three suspicious men passing through his back yard. The three had ditched the car on a side road and were sneaking back to town. 

All four were captured by the police and reportedly confessed to other crimes in the area, including tying up residents they found at home. Under the new accusatory system, (just like in the US) they were freed on “bail” which amounts to having to report to the police twice a week. Even though they may or may not face jail time, it will be far harder for them to continue their criminal ways. 

From Private Investigators to Professional Police

2015 is the year when professional policing arrived in Chiriqui. Previous commissioners and officials began the process of professionalizing the police forces of Chiriqui. However, with the new administration, modernization has moved into high gear. 

In 2010, with a largely indifferent police force, the only hope of finding out who had stolen your stuff was to hire a private investigator. Results were, shall we say, mixed. First, information which is paid for cannot be used in a criminal prosecution. With the new accusatory system, even talking to a PI could poison a prosecution for the police. Second, any person in Panama who has knowledge of a crime is required by law to report it to the police. Thus, a PI who spends weeks developing information about a crime could himself be arrested for failing to report it promptly.

The arrival of Captain Juan Arauz in Boquete has marked a sea change in our relationship with the police. The consummate professional, Captain Arauz frequently investigates crimes himself, even minor ones, leading by example and providing a commanding presence far beyond Boquete. Panama needs more like Juan.

The bad old days of “We don’t have gas for our car” are gone. Now, on a busy Saturday night in Boquete, one might see the flashing lights of three new police trucks patrolling the town. Patrols in the canyon communities of Alto Boquete are now frequent, as is interaction and cooperation with the residents. Response times are down across the board and the police work with Rodny’s Helpline to further improve their performance.

Dealing with gangs

In 2011, the police commissioner in David told us that the only way to stop the criminal drug gangs was to provide alternative activities for young people. The gang diversion policies put in place under the Martinelli administration are being continued and strengthened under Varela. They have proven effective in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

The roots of the gang problem are easy to see: Panama has literally gone from 1950 to 2015 in the space of less than ten years. Eight years ago, Pricesmart was virtually unknown to Panamanians. Most of the cars on the road were old beaters. At the first parade I photographed, I was virtually the only person in the crowd with a camera. Most Panamanians didn't use WhatsApp, Facebook, texting or smart phones.

Given this almost instantaneous modernization, it’s not surprising that many “old world” parents are not experientially equipped to deal with the lives that their children are facing. The nuclear family - the core of Panamanian society since the beginning - is disappearing, just as it has in other developed nations. Only much more abruptly.

The Varela government is actively pursuing the gang diversion strategy - according to the new Minister of Security, dozens of gangs have been broken up and thousands of young men put to useful work, dramatically reducing the murder rate in Colon and Panama City. Efforts are under way to apply the same program to David. 

There is much that the expat community could do to help these youth programs, including music, sports, apprenticeship training and more. I expect this will be a topic for discussion in 2016.

Looking forward to 2016

The new year will certainly bring us new challenges. However, we go into 2016 much stronger, better prepared and more confident in our ability to live safe and prosper in Panama. 

For more information about security methods and options, please visit:
Edited by Admin_01
corrected the posting of the picture
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