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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: www.SleepwellPanama.com
We were all horrified to learn of the violent attack on our friend Richard Moore on a peaceful Wednesday morning last week. I know I speak for the entire community in wishing him a speedy recovery. In the aftermath of the incident, it became common knowledge that Richard for some time had provided security assessments as a volunteer for Alto al Crimen. Some people rather insensitively commented on the irony of a security assessor becoming a crime victim. Even Alto al Crimen failed to immediately support their volunteer, only belatedly announcing that he was a former volunteer as if to distance themselves from his tragedy. It seems that Richard is another victim of the maxim, “No good deed shall go unpunished.” Somewhere in the Christian Ten Commandments, there is one about loving your neighbor as your brother. I for one am proud to defend Richard as a brother. Richard is a very good man. He and his wife are good people. They are us and we are them. Richard selflessly gave of his time to help make our community a safer place for all. What happened to him was a cruel alignment of circumstances, which, but for the grace of time, place and luck, go all of us. Richard was and is concerned with the safety of our community. I would suggest that the best way to honor his loss is to learn what we must - without judgement or criticism - from his experience and apply those lessons to make our own lives and those of our friends, more secure. The lessons about how to establish a secure lifestyle are not difficult, but we have been slow to learn them - at a terrible cost in blood and treasure. In the last year alone: Joe Potrebenko, Marion Clamp and now Richard Moore. Along with many others who we are less aware of. So thank your Richard - Thank you for your service to our community. Thank you for being a shepard and a teacher. We can only hope that your tragedy will help save many others from the disaster of violent crime in the future. It can be done and we much do it, just as you taught us. Dr. Sleepwell www.sleepwellpanama.com
The holidays are upon us once again and there are lots of “extra” people in town and some who are looking for extra spending money. You don’t want to be their cash machine. Let’s review a few “best practices” that can reduce the likelihood of coming to grief at any time of year, but the holidays in particular. DON'T LEAVE VALUABLES IN YOUR CAR. This almost seems too obvious, but in his talk at the BCP theater the other day, the new Minister of Security for Panama related how he had left his laptop in his car parked on the street in Panama City and was shocked to find it gone when he returned. Shocked! And remember to lock your car as well... DO NOT OPEN YOUR FRONT DOOR OR GATE until you know FOR SURE who is out there and what they want. I received a report the other day from a resident about someone coming to her front gate and claiming to be from Cable Onda. She noticed that he did not have a car, was not in uniform and did not have a clipboard. He was sent away. Who knows what might have happened had he gotten inside. There are lots of strangers in town during this time. For maximum safety, stop them at your front gate/door. Anyone who needs to visit can call you on your phone. If they do get onto your property, pull out your phone and take their picture. Don’t be shy. Having a visible security camera that records all the goings on at your front entrance is a very good deterrent and could provide valuable information if bad guys are roaming your neighborhood. BE VERY CAREFUL ABOUT CARRYING LARGE AMOUNTS OF CASH - Two of the most brutal recent home invasions happened the very night that the victims had withdrawn over $1000 from the same bank. In one case, the robbers asked for the specific amount withdrawn. Not all banks are ratting out their customers, but it only takes one bad-egg, not necessarily even a teller, to ruin your life forever. Even carrying large amounts of cash from the bank to your car is a dangerous undertaking, especially if you are alone. Withdrawing large amounts of cash from the bank and taking it home with you, especially overnight, is extremely dangerous and could cost you your life. A friend just returned from Costa Rica and told me that violent home invasions against expats were very common there, and that the bank withdrawal scam was the most frequent method for setting up victims. There have been cases in Chiriqui where people sold their cars in the afternoon (after the banks had closed), for cash and had the robbers return in the night to steal it back. So if you have to receive a large amount of money from someone, go with them to your bank, receive the money in the bank and deposit it immediately while they watch. Then, if you need to pay a large bill in cash (not credit card), giving them a check is quite safe. Otherwise, go to your bank and transfer the money directly into their account. Or take them to your bank, withdraw the money and hand it to them right there in the bank. I know these are not the most cheerful of holiday messages, but if they help keep you safe, then we can all enjoy the holidays with more security and pleasure. Dr. Sleepwell www.SleepwellPanama.com