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A New Dawn For Security in Panama?

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October 27, 2015 - BCP Theater, Boquete Panama - This morning saw a much anticipated presentation by the new Minister of Security for Panama, Rodolfo Aguilera, in addition to Mayor of Boquete Emigdio Walker Vasquez and popular chief of police, Juan Arauz. 


This follows a meeting on Monday in David, where President Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez participated on a panel to discuss revising the plans and programs for security in this region of the country. https://www.presidencia.gob.pa/Noticias/Varela-Rodriguez-revisa-planes-y-programas-de-seguridad-en-Chiriqui


Rodolfo Aguilera presented a huge amount of very detailed information, of which I will summarize only a small fraction. The meeting was videotaped and I would recommend it to anyone interested.


First, let me say that looking at the people on stage, the Mayor, police chief, Rodolfo and his American/Panamanian assistant, I got the very strong feeling that we are seeing a new breed of well educated, modern technocrats moving into positions of authority in Panama. 


Rodolfo presented for more than an hour, supported by volumes of detailed powerpoint slides, discussing types of crimes, trends by type, by province, even compared to other countries in Central America and the world. His comments pulled no punches and his answers to questions were forthright and direct. Here are some of the highlights from my notes:



On the Panamanian criminal justice 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. 


On Gangs


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, briefly:

  • 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. 


On the security budget


According to Rodolfo, Varela insists on cost justifying everything. When asked to justify increased spending on security, Rodolfo 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, 2000 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. 


On guns


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. 


These are only a few highlights from what was a most interesting and informative presentation. I would recommend that anyone who is interested watch the entire presentation. 


See TV Chiriqui for the complete video presentation.








Edited by Dr Sleepwell
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Thanks to Dr. Sleepwell for an incredibly prompt overview of the public meeting earlier today on security matters at the BCP Theater in Boquete.

I generally disapprove of cross-posting of cross-posts (one level of cross-posting is common, but not a second level). However, given the significance of the topic and the high degree of interest, I am making an exception to my personal policy.

Here is a link to additional information from the Chiriqui Chatter website about that public meeting: http://www.chiriquichatter.net/blog/2015/10/27/october-27th-security-meeting-at-bcp-in-boquete/.

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Cross posting can be good - Don Ray (OK, and my wife too) pointed out that I had neglected to mention the issue of 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. 

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.

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That is something that I pointed out in one post I did at Boquete Ning some weeks ago when Marion was attacked. 

There is an outcry of Panamanians asking for changing the law regarding minors.   Everytime that any Diputado work on a project regarding this subject there is a  show of a lot of Human Rights defendants, lawyers and UN people on the News media telling us that doing something in regards of minors is going backward as an developed country.

What people says is that those Human rights people, and UN officials are not defending the humanr rights of the victims and their families.




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In developed countries that adhere to the international human rights mandate that juveniles not be incarcerated in adult prisons, there is generally a sophisticated juvenile justice system in place which includes reformatories for the incarceration and rehabilitation of under age offenders. There is no such animal is Panama. Hence, juvenile offenders are unaccountable for their criminal actions. I've seen nothing in everything that has been said thus far by Panamanian officials that suggests this may be what is needed, together with the intervention measures touted.

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I agree 100% with what Bonnie wrote. When the microphones are on, the cameras are flashing and the videos are running, you will hear a lot go promises. Until something is addressed that is targeted toward violent offenses by minors, then I have little hope for significant change.

I saw nothing in the previous day's meeting with Varela that said anything about this problem. All I really saw addressed was more focus on drug trafficking. 

Now that the cameras are off, my fear is that things will continue on like it is until the next offense that draws a major public uprising.

I think it would be a good idea for each individual living in Panama as a resident from a foreign country to write its Embassy and ask the Embassy to address the Violent Offense Problem  by minors be raised as an issue of concern with their Panamanian counterparts.

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Rodolfo Aguilera, Minister of Security of Panama, apparently did mention this is yesterday's presentation at BCP. According to a summary of the meeting posted this morning on News Boquete, the following was related:

"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."

This is only a recognition of the problem on his part, however. There appears to be no movement by the government in the area of juvenile justice. Given the fact of the UN treaty, it is unlikely that minors ever will be incarcerated unless the country gets serious and builds some juvenile facilities and institutes a juvenile justice system separate from that of adults.

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Dr. Sleepwell's summary said: "UN treaties supersede national law..."

This is absolutely not true.

This is from the UN Foundation website:

"A UN treaty does not supersede national laws. Specifically, the UN has no capacity or ability to threaten a country’s sovereignty."

The UN treaty does not prevent Panama from changing it's laws regarding juvenile incarceration.  If Pres. Varela is saying that, he is misinformed.


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This is an addendum to yesterday's report on the BCP  meeting of Minister of Security Rodolfo Aguilera.
I am posting this partly because of a possible misunderstanding about what the Minister said and more importantly, because the subject of juvenile crime is so much on our minds after the tragedy of Marion Clamp and others. If you would like to see these laws changed, see below.

My original report stated that: "UN treaties supersede national law, so getting it changed will be difficult. " Well-informed reader Judy Sacco pointed out correctly that this is not the case: 

"A UN treaty does not supersede national laws. Specifically, the UN has no capacity or ability to threaten a country’s sovereignty."
In the Minister's own words:
"There is a juvenile crime law in Panama which is very soft - UN standards. These standards are drafted by Europeans, and..."
[He jokes that he received his Master's Degree in England and that he knows how the Europeans think about these things. [In my interpretation, the Europeans do not necessarily understand the lack of "social safety nets" here in Panama]
"Congressman Samil [last name unintelligible] from David is the one who is leading the path for those congressmen who are willing to change the law. It means precautionary measures to incapacitate those juvenile criminals. We have to do it because the law has become an incentive for criminal gangs, so they [the minors] become the operating arm of bigger [criminal gangs].
I cannont change the law because I am not a legislator, but I know that Athena, your [deputada] here in the Boquete, Dolega and Gualaca regions is [active in this] and my brother is the congressman for the Volcan/Bugaba area... and it's important that initiative. 
The problem is we have signed treaties with UN standards and Panama treaties are a higher guarantee than law - so they would have to find a way to circumvent that problem. But I totally agree with you - we need more strict rules when it comes to juvenile gangs."  [what is the difference between treaty compliance and loss of sovereignty?]
What conclusions can we draw?
First, we are well represented here in Chiriqui (and at the highest levels of government) in regard to this problem. Second, we have an obligation as expats to participate in the process of change. While we don't vote and most don't pay taxes, there is something concrete we can do to influence change in the law.
In Panama, petitions carry weight in the political process.
At the recent community meeting in Potrerillos, over 165 signatures were gathered on a petition to encourage changes in the criminal laws. These were forwarded to Athena with her gratitude. 
Next Saturday each and every one of us can go to the Chiriqui Storage Flea Market and sign a petition urging the legislators to change the criminal laws regarding juvenile offenders. 
Edited by Dr Sleepwell
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From today's Newsroom Panama:

"PANAMA, has been elected for the first time to the United Nations General Assembly as members of the Human Rights Commission.

"Panama was supported by 157 countries.

"Ecuador and Venezuela were re-elected to second terms. Their membership has been opposed by several human rights organizations, who think that these countries do not meet the minimum requirements in this field.

"The three countries will begin their terms on Jan. 1 and serve for the next three years."

This probably doesn't bode well for changing the law re juvenile offenders.

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I have to believe that the U.N. treaty on the treatment of juveniles probably states that they should not be incarcerated with adult offenders. Since Panama has no facilities for the separate detention of juveniles (i.e., no reform schools, juvie detention centers, work camps, etc), the Panama government just releases them and uses the U.N. treaty as an excuse for not spending money to create juvenile facilities.

When listening to the minister speak about all the opportunities the government was giving to gang members to deter their life of crime, I couldn't help but wonder what opportunities the government was also giving to the good kids . . . those who don't own a firearm and don't assault and rob people.

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Penny, your first point was made by me in an earlier post, supported by Don Ray. I am disappointed that Panama apparently doesn't recognize this need (for juvenile facilities). There is virtually no mention of it in all the rhetoric about coping with juvenile crime.

Your second point is well-taken, too. I was just reading this morning in Newsroom Panama (cited below) about the deplorable condition of public education in Panama. While there may be merit to providing alternative opportunities to gang members to encourage them to change their way of life, this seems pretty pie-in-the-sky to me. That money could be better spent, in my opinion, on building a juvenile justice system and improving education for all Panama children.


OPINION; A collapsing educational system

Posted on October 28, 2015 in Panama

STUDENTS DAY was commemorated with much pain and little glory. While a school in the capital city suddenly ended the school year because its decrepit structure threatened to collapse on students and teachers, the President announced that the government would invest $38 million in improving schools in Chiriqui.Meanwhile  the teachers’ unions expressed their opposition to the initiative of an extended school day, a proposal recognized internationally, to improve academic performance. Although the fiscal year is very close to completion, the Ministry of Education continues with a very low budget execution. Fathers and mothers, who must deal with the burden of the frustration generated by the public education system are the true heroes of a Panamanian tragedy, whose martyrs are the students. To the youth of the country we must offer our sincere apologies for the horrible crime that constitutes the public education in the country. We still have the hope of an educational revolution of committed citizens and with love for knowledge .Hoyporhoy, La Prensa, Oct.28

(One of the first things I would suggest is that they take away their drums and replace them with books.;))

Edited by Bonnie
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In talking with the police, when Deborah gave her statement, we were told that14 year old was released to the father because the law would not allow him to be held.

15-17 can be held, I have no idea where or if they are. At the time of Deborah's statement a 17 year old was in custody. 

18 is the age considered an adult.

The lady taking Deborah's statement said the police were frustrated because their hands were tied because of the law.


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Some fact checking is required here. Facilities for juvenile offenders do exist in Panama.




En Panamá existen siete centros para recluir a la población de menores infractores.

El único con hacinamiento es el centro de custodia de menores Arco Iris, ubicado en Tocumen, ciudad capital.

Las instalaciones se dividen en dos: Arco Iris centro de custodia 1 y centro de custodia 2. El primero tiene una capacidad para 91 jóvenes y concentra a 153. El segundo tiene capacidad para 24 jóvenes y mantiene a 32.

La Residencia Femenina, ubicada detrás del Inadeh de Tocumen, tiene capacidad para 28 chicas y cobija a 11, de las cuales 5 niñas están en espera de juicio y 6 pagan su condena.

El centro de cumplimiento de Pacora puede albergar a 192 menores y tiene 149 pagando sus delitos.

El centro de custodia Basilio Lakas, en Colón, dividido en dos, tiene una población de 37 jóvenes infractores. De ese total, 18 están en proceso de condena y 19 pagan sus penas. La capacidad del lugar es para 45 chicos.

En Herrera, hay 40 jóvenes en un centro dividido en dos: 27 menores en custodia y 13 condenados. La capacidad del lugar es para 56.

En Chiriquí, el centro de cumplimiento Aurelio Granados, dividido en dos, tiene 71 chicos: 35 menores en custodia y 36 condenados. El centro tiene capacidad para 85 infractores.


Edited by Keith Woolford
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Mighty sad situation Keith.  Children who learn the criminal path early and are essentially rewarded more for that than a hug from parents they don't have or who are in jail.   Kids who can not read, who feel disenfranchised are becoming young gangsters and receive a pat on the head from their gang leader...."good job" ! For once they have succeeded at something and it is recognized.  Yeiks.   This is a sickness of society.  Solving it may not be an easy task. Meanwhile the adult criminals...many of whom themselves came up in this same manner are fully taking advantage of this system that has no control over crimes committed by youth.....and it multiplies!   A very complex problem.  Where will this be in 10 years?

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