How to Stay Safe

A recent rash of violent home invasions in the Beaches area has many people worried and very guarded – and wondering if they’re next. Panama is supposed to be a safe country and a major reason expats from around the world move here.  Throw in the beautiful Pacific beaches, solid infrastructure and great people, and towns such as Gorgona, Coronado and San Carlos are perfect places for those wishing to move permanently, retire, be a snowbird, or come for vacation.   But – and it’s a big but – if you don’t feel safe and secure in your own home or community how can you be happy and live your dream?    While it might not be necessary to panic and turn your home into a fortress, there are simple things that can be done to prepare yourself and deter potential criminals.   For example, do you know the phone number(s) for your local police? Are they readily available in case of an emergency?   Jim Rizik is a 24-year veteran police officer spending most of his career in the Washington, D.C. area.  He is also a permanent resident of Panama and owns a home in Gorgona.  You may recognize his name because after a serious home invasion in Gorgona he spearheaded a neighborhood watch program through Panama’s Vecinos Vigilantes project.

Rizik says the most important thing for people, homeowners or not, is to be aware of their surroundings.
“Make sure you know your neighbours, what cars they drive, what their names are,” he explains.  “Be aware if something doesn’t seem right on your street or in your neighborhood.”
For example, be aware of strange sounds. What does this mean? Well, as reported, the couple in San Carlos who were recently victims of a violent home invasion said afterwards that they had heard strange “birds” at night in their yard. Turns out, they were probably criminals sending whistle signals back and forth to each other as they scoped out the property over the course of several days.
If neighbors know you and they hear an alarm or dogs barking, or are aware of something not being right, they are more likely to intervene on your behalf. 
Secondly, Rizik says, is change your routine.  The incident in Gorgona, and the most recent one in San Carlos, involved a group closely watching and monitoring the home.  They knew when the people were home and when they went out.  This can be as easy as changing times for morning walks, taking different roads out of the neighborhood, or going out for dinner on different nights.
“Make it difficult for the criminals and use common sense,” Rizik states.
Common sense is the easiest aspect of improving safety and security.  For example, don’t go to the beach with money and expensive Smartphones only to have someone grab them when you’re taking a dip in the ocean.
Walking around drunk in the middle of the night or walking on the beach alone at night – not a good idea.
Don’t leave you laptop on the front seat of your car while you go shopping.
You wouldn’t do these things back in the U.S. or Canada so why would someone expect a different outcome in Panama?
Another important thing people can do is make sure they are not flaunting money or jewellery – people notice and people talk!  For instance, if you need to go to the grocery store to buy a few items don’t pull out the wallet or purse with hundred dollar bills showing. Simply have some smaller bills available in your pocket.  
Sometimes it is difficult to not keep large sums of money on your person because many establishments do not take credit or debit cards – just try to prepare before you leave the house.
In terms of frontline security for a home, Rizik believes the following are the most important:
  • Have a dog – If you are only in Panama for a few months, there are organizations that will let you adopt a dog for a period of time;
  • Install security alarms, motion lights and/or cameras – Thieves do not like lights or noise;
  • Keep doors locked EVEN when at home – This prevents bold criminals from simply walking in through the front door in the middle of the day (it has happened!);
  • Have a panic alarm for your car – One that can be set off from your keychain, and keep the keychain next to your bed at night;
  • If you have bars or gates make sure they are solid and check them occasionally to make sure they are not being tampered with;
  • Painting exterior walls white allows you to better see movement in your yard at night;
  • Have signs posted on fences and gates – Beware of Dogs, No Trespassing, etc.
  • Check to see if you have a Vecinos Vigilantes (neighborhood watch) program in your area – Contact them and let them know your name, street and address (if possible); and,
  • Don’t keep valuables around open windows and doors – Even if there are bars on them, there have been many cases of thieves simply walking by and sticking their arms though the bars and grabbing something. 
In terms of personal safety, gun ownership is an option. Rizik says owning a gun is a personal choice but he says to obtain one legally in Panama is very difficult and includes many tests and licensing hurdles.  Plus, he adds, sometimes a gun in the home poses more of a threat and is something criminals would actually be looking for. If people are looking into a weapon for self-defence, it’s possible to buy pepper spray.
Finally, Rizik says, if something doesn’t seem right call the police.
“Don’t wait until it’s too late.”
Police numbers:
English speaking officer for emergency calls (Coronado): 240-4222
Gorgona police station: 240-6033
Chame police station: 240-6666
If all numbers are busy: 253-3333
Sgt. Francis cell (speaks some English) 6913-4199
If you would like further information on Gorgona’s Neighborhood Watch or the Vecinos Vigilantes project you can contact Jim Rizik at: