What You Need to Know About Drugs & Crime in Panama

Panama will never make into the list of the World's Top 10 Safe Places to Visit – perhaps not even the top 25. While muggings, express kidnappings and shootings are common in Panama, how much of this is a risk to your personal safety?

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Crime levels are high, and we're not talking about petty theft here. Violent crime such as armed robberies (which have been known to occur in restaurants), shootings, rape, muggings, car theft, car jackings, and ‘express kidnappings' from ATM machines, just to name a few – and that's just in Panama city.

This isn't to say something bad will happen to you. It's an incredibly beautiful country that's well worth exploring, you just need to be street smart and take extra caution to avoid falling victim to crime.

Crime Hot Spots in Panama

Here are some notorious crime hot-spots to avoid in Panama:

Colon, Panama

Colon is simply a no go zone, and most government agencies have issued stern warnings about travel to the city.

Panama City

Criminal activity in Panama City has led to a curfew for those under 18, which is strictly enforced. Minors who are in breach will be detained at a police station until a parent or guardian comes to collect them and the fine issued.

Pick-pocketing and mugging is rife in Panama City, particularly in busy streets, on buses, and at bus stations.

Take Care in Markets and Shopping Areas

Shopping areas are also hot spots, particularly Via España and Avenida Central, the area of Calidonia, as well as in the old town (Casco Viejo) in Panama City, and in the old Panama ruins (Panama Viejo).

Madden Dam

On the way out of Panama, the Madden Dam area is to be avoided.

Tips to Stay Safe

Keep your possessions close, bags shut and carried at the front, and men should carry wallets in their front rather than rear pockets.

Casco Viejo street in an old part of Panama City. Photo credit: iStock

Drug Possession in Panama

Panama is on the route from the cocaine growing areas of South America to the largest consumer country, the USA. Trafficking is a serious business, and as such poses a real threat to unwitting travelers.

"No me mates, esas drogas no son mías!" which translates to, "Don't Shoot, the drugs aren't mine!"

You may not get shot by the police for drug possession, but it is a serious crime to be in possession of even very small quantities of drugs. Simply being in the company of someone using drugs is sufficient grounds for arrest. Prison terms for drug offences can be up to 15 years, and it can take up to two years to even appear before a Judge for sentencing.

With crime such a grim reality in Panama, police checkpoints are commonplace on weekends on roads between cities. Use your common sense and stop when requested.

Safety in the Darien Gap

You should not visit Darien Gap beyond Yaviza in southern Panama, which is near the border with Colombia. This area is the province of serious drug business – we're talking violent criminal activity, guerrilla groups and drug traffickers.

There have been numerous reports of kidnappings and murders (including foreigners), armed robberies, injuries from recently-planted landmines, deaths and disappearances in this area.

The dangerous zone begins at the end of the Pan American Highway (at Yaviza, about 230km southeast of Panama city) and ends at the Colombian border. This area includes the Darien National Park, privately owned nature reserves, and tourist resorts. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) operate in this region, so just avoid the area altogether.

Narco Boats & Criminal Activity

Criminal drug activity is not isolated to land. Plying the waters of the Archipiélago de San Blás, the Pacific Coast, and the Atlantic Coast are numerous boats that run back and forth between the Zona Libre in Colónand Cartagena, Colombia.

If you decide to ride on one of these slow cargo boats, consider the fact that your crew may be trafficking drugs. Remember, you may pay the price for even being in the company of someone in possession of drugs.

When traveling by boat or along the coastline, if you see any bales or wrapped packages floating in the sea or lying on remote beaches, avoid them at all costs. These are likely to be drugs ready for pick-up, do not touch them.

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4 Comments

  • nativa tours panama said

    Just wanted to mention that Panama is the safest country in Central America!
    Of course there are crimes and robbery but no more than in most " northern" countries
    I would just recommend to avoid walking in some Colon streets but Panama city tourist circuit is absolutely fine: just don't " slide" from casco antiguo to the place called Chorrillo!
    San Blas is 100% safe as well as las perlas and Coiba. Bocas del toro might be more complicated following recent and recurrent aggressions. Sailing from san blas to cartagena can be hazardous: some boats are not in good conditions and some didn't reach cartagena ... trade wind in dry season make the passage even more difficult. We recommend booking san blas charters through legal companies in Panama like san blas sailing.
    Our office team can assist you for any further questions.

  • Ramsey said

    We just came back to Canada from Panama and found it pretty safe!
    We stayed in the city, in Las Lajas, and in Rio Hato. We walked in the city at night in 2 different areas and even went shopping in a small shopping mall. We walked during day time. Everyone is on their phone (large screen phones) and no one is stealing from anyone. Most cars are pretty new.

    We spoke to a lot of locals, on purpose, to get to know them and to know the areas. They all said "esta bien tranquilo aqui" etc. We had a great time.
    Most told us petty theft is common and NOT violent crime as you're saying (unless you're in bad neighborhoods). There is violent crime for sure, just like in Toronto and New York. We stayed away from bad neighborhoods as those do have lots of crime.

    Panama is growing rapidly and the minimum salary is also being increased (highest in all of Latin America as of Dec 2016).

    We used to live in Guatemala and there is a dangerous country! Lovely but dangerous. We would only walk in areas with police or in shopping malls. We wouldn't dare walk in the city more than 50 meters.

  • laura said

    Having lived here (Panama) my entire life, the only safety issues I have ever heard of are a few robberies. It is an overall safe country and I think it is absolutely disrespectful to display it as a dangerous place. This article is horribly biased and ignorant in regards to how life actually is here. Someone can simply walk around the city without fear of anything happening to them.
    In comparison to our neighbor countries, such as Venezuela (where crime and kidnapping is common), Panama is a overall safe country to visit and live in. Though there is some drug trafficking issues but they are never related to normal citizens. It is not even close to the way that it is said here. Drugs aren't floating around the ocean casually, it is not something one hears about. We do have an issue because most drugs travel through the country from Colombia to the U.S.

  • Allyson said

    Hi Laura,

    We are well aware this article is very out of date. Keep posting your experiences and updated information in the comments section, we're in the process of updating these articles and appreciate your input.

    Cheers,

    [email protected]

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