General Safety and Security
Panama remains relatively safe, when compared to other Central American countries; nonetheless, there is crime. The most common crimes are robbery, burglary, purse snatching, pick pocketing, and thefts from automobiles. Recently, smart phones have become a particular target. The use of weapons (handguns and knives) is common during street robberies, however gratuitous violence is uncommon as long as the victim complies and hands over the desired items. It is recommended that you cooperate with armed assailants rather than resist.
There have also been incidents in which a victim is briefly kidnapped (also known as “express kidnapping”) and robbed after being forced to withdraw cash from an ATM. There has also been a recent rise in the number of credit card and ATM card fraud reports. Criminals are capturing credit and ATM card information to create fraudulent cards. It is recommended to use ATM machines only inside banks. You may also consider putting a daily withdrawal limit on your ATM card. Other crimes include armed robbery, gang related violence, shootings and sexual assault.
It is prudent to carry only small amounts of cash. Cash machines and banks are available in Panama City and in other towns. If you use traveler’s checks, record the check numbers, protect the checks as you would cash, and count them regularly. Do not leave cash, jewelry, credit cards, airline tickets or passports unattended. Do not leave bags unattended in public areas.
The entire city of Colon is a high crime area; travelers should use extreme caution anywhere in Colon. The high crime areas in and around Panama City that should be avoided whenever possible include: El Chorillo, Barraza, Calidonia, San Miguel, Santa Ana, Cabo Verde, Curundú, the Madden Dam overlook, Rio Abajo, San Miguelito, Santa Librada, Pedregal, Tocumen and the surroundings of Veracruz Beach. To verify security conditions at specific areas, contact the STRI Security Office (212-8025). Due to the proximity to some sensitive areas, you should exercise caution when walking between or around the different STRI facilities located at Ancón (such as the Tupper-Tivoli complex, the CTPA Building and Ancón Quarters) and also at the cross walk at Avenida de los Mártires.
A. Panama city; B. Colon city, crime areas
Other areas, attractive to both nationals and visitors, are considered dangerous to some extent. Recently, there have been reports of shootings, sexual assault and fights taking place in “Calle Uruguay”(and nearby along Avenida Balboa), an area with many clubs and restaurants. Caution should be taken in those areas and when visiting other nightlife areas, such as Casco Viejo. Further, it is suggested that newcomers not drive or walk to Casco Viejo at night until becoming familiar with the streets because a wrong turn can lead to nearby dangerous areas. When going out in Panama, it is always best to go in a group and do not over-indulge in alcohol.
Panama has many nightclubs, bars, casinos, and gentlemen clubs. Many of these locations are havens for drug sales and prostitution. When going out in Panama, it is always best to go in a group and do not over indulge in alcohol. The majority of the reported street robberies have occurred late a night in the bar/restaurant district along Balboa Ave. and Calle Uruguay.
On the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, vessels may be transporting narcotics, illicit materials, and illegal immigrants to and from Colombia. Bales and specially wrapped packages containing narcotics have been found floating in the ocean or lying on remote beaches. Boaters and beachgoers are warned to steer clear of these items, and to not pick up or move these packages. Report suspect packages to the Panamanian authorities.
Help For Victims of Crime
If you or someone you know becomes the victim of a crime, you should call the STRI Headquarters Security Guard Booth at 212-8911 or 212-8211. You also need to contact the local police and your nearest embassy or consulate. Embassies and consulates can often help you find appropriate medical care, put you in contact with police authorities, contact family members or friends, and provide contacts for legal assistance.
The Panamanian Government sponsors a program to assist victims of crime. The program is managed by the Oficina de Asistencia a Víctimas de Crímenes, located at the Policia Tecnica Judicial in the Ancon area of Panama City. Its telephone numbers are (011) 507-262-1973 or (011) 507-512-2222.
As in the United States, the emergency line in Panama is 911. The police can be reached directly by dialing 104.
Obeying Panamanian Law
While you are in Panama, you are subject to its laws. Persons violating Panamanian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking illegal drugs in Panama are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. Suspects are frequently imprisoned for long periods before the case comes to trial.
A Panamanian weapons permit must be obtained prior to carry any weapons anywhere. For more information, contact the STRI Security Department (212-8205).
Protest & Strikes
From time to time, there are demonstrations and protests. While most are non-violent, it is nonetheless a good security practice to avoid demonstrations. The Panamanian National Police generally do not use force to break up demonstrations, but there have been occasions when tear gas and/or riot control munitions have been used. Demonstrations and marches can and do occur in many locations around the country, to include areas along the Pan American highway. Areas near the campus of the University of Panama, the Presidential Palace, and the National Assembly have been the scenes of frequent protests.
Since February 2012, protestors have blocked remote roadways and the Pan American Highway on an intermittent but regular basis, sometimes for periods lasting several days, and sometimes trapping travelers on the roads without access to food and water. During these extended road closures the security situation can be tense and the potential for violence between Panamanian authorities and protestors is high. Those traveling by road outside Panama City should travel with full fuel tanks, keep extra potable water and food in their vehicles, and ensure cell phones are charged during their travel. For the most recent information on possible road closures, monitor local news and consult local police.
High surf and dangerous currents are present at some beaches, especially those on the Pacific Ocean and those in Bocas del Toro Province, including Red Frog Beach. Beaches are seldom posted with warning signs or monitored by lifeguards. Visitors should always assess the conditions and exercise caution.
Panama is also subject to floods and landslides, especially in the rainy season, from May to December. Caution needs to be taken when driving in heavy rain, crossing river areas, and in mountainous terrain. Remember that rain in the mountains can cause flooding downstream, even if it is not raining in the lower elevations. Do not swim in swollen or swiftly moving rivers or streams. Do not walk through moving floodwaters. Six inches of moving water can make you fall. If you have to walk in water, walk where the water is not moving. Use a stick to check the firmness of the ground in front of you. Do not drive into flooded areas. If your car stalls in rapidly rising waters, get out immediately and climb to higher ground, if you can do so safely. Flooding may cause familiar places to change, eroding roads and walkways, or depositing debris in roadways. If flooded areas cannot be avoided, always proceed with caution. Do not camp or park your vehicle along streams, rivers or creeks, particularly during threatening conditions.
The sun, heat and humidity in Panama can also be dangerous. When prolonged exposure is expected, be sure to always use adequate sun protection: dress in loose-fitting, lightweight, and light-colored clothes that cover as much skin as possible, wear wide-brimmed hats, and apply sunscreen. Drink water often, avoid excessive exertion and take frequent breaks. For more information on heat disorders see http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/brochures/heat_wave.shtml.
Panama is home to many plants and animals that may be hazardous to people. For example, large crocodiles could be present in marine waters and at some beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, but also in rivers, and canal waters bordering Gamboa and BCI. Talk to your Station Administrator about local dangers.
Other natural hazards that can occur in Panama include lightning storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires. Visitors should keep abreast of news and stay aware of their surroundings and take precautionary action when warranted.
Tap water may not be potable in areas outside of Panama City. When in doubt, stick to bottled water, to avoid infection/illness. Occasionally, disruptions in water service occur in Panama City, requiring that water be boiled before consumption. It is suggested that bottled water be used in these circumstances.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Before visiting Panama, you should ensure that your routine vaccinations are up to date and check if you will need any additional vaccinations. Check the following websites for information:
It is suggested that you talk with your STRI sponsor about the specific vaccinations you should have for the areas you are likely to visit for your research; some diseases present in Panama, are not present within the urban and canal zones, for example.
Panama City has some very good hospitals and clinics, but medical facilities outside of the capital are limited. A listing of English-speaking medical care providers is maintained by the U.S. Embassy.
The 911 emergency call center provides ambulance service. However, an ambulance may not always be available and, given difficulties with traffic jams and poor road conditions, there may be a significant delay in response. There are also private ambulance services available on a subscription basis.
STRI has contracted with one such service for the following facilities; Gamboa, Tupper, Naos… To request activation of the ambulance service, call STRI Headquarters Security Guard Booth at 212-8911 or 212-8211.
STRI recognizes that our international scientific visitors are exposed to risk when in the field or laboratory, and may experience unexpected medical problems unrelated to work during their time in Panama. As such, STRI scientific visitors are required to have medical and accident insurance coverage that is valid in Panama.
Proof of medical and accident insurance is a pre-requisite to submit a visit request via the STRI registration site.
Be advised that local practice at private hospitals in Panama requires that the visitor must be prepared to pay for their medical expenses at the time of treatment. STRI strongly encourages visitors to have a credit card with a sufficient credit line for use in the event of a medical emergency.
STRI has an agreement with a private ambulance service to provide emergency transportation services with no cost to the visitor while on our premises in Panama City, BCI, Gamboa and Galeta. This service can be accessed in case of any emergency by calling 212-8911 or 212-8211*. Be aware that emergency transportation to a private hospital or private trauma center does not guarantee admittance.
*NOTE: Although emergency rooms at PRIVATE hospitals in Panama are required by law to provide life-saving emergency treatment, once stabilized, they will dispatch the patient to a public hospital. For all other illness and/or injuries, private hospitals will only grant admission upon submission of a credit card with sufficient credit to cover your medical expenses (usually $3,000 at least).
Panama has a network of public hospitals that will treat a patient regardless of their ability to pay, but waiting times and availability of treatment and medicines may not be comparable to private hospitals.