I had been in Panama City for about a week when I found myself with a gun pointed at me. In the span of mere seconds, I went from casually walking down the street, minding my own business, to a strange man pointing an assault rifle at me in broad daylight. For me, a Canadian, it was rather perturbing.
It happened entirely by accident. The man didn’t know me, nor did I know him or his associates. All four of them were coalesced in a circle of an abandoned concrete shell of a building that was without walls. Each faced out with their guns’ sights scanning the front and back sidewalks. Two suitcases were on the ground in the middle of them. None of them wore a uniform that might explain why they were so heavily armed.
It was all over in a few short seconds, from the instant I saw them until I figured I was safely out of their sights. Other people walked by the building, seemingly unaware of the armed men, as they were partially hidden by a makeshift fence and two running SUVs, presumably theirs.
Who those men were (private security? undercover police? drug cartels?), why they were there, what was in the suitcases, and why they had their guns pointed on everyone who happened to be walking down that sidewalk that day, I won’t ever know.
After the incident, every time I walked past that house (it was unavoidably close to my apartment), I was focused on that abandoned building. A few months later, a taller fence was built around it, completely blocking off any view inside. Who knows what goes on inside that building now? It remains undeveloped, surrounded by the regular goings-on of the city. Maybe the armed men continue to use the building for their armed meetings. It’s no matter to me, I continue to walk by on a daily basis. Out of sight, out of mind.
Those guns were the first and last I’ve ever seen in Panama, other than those of police or armored-vehicle and bank guards. Sometimes I think I hear gunshots through my open window at night, but then I see the sparkle of fireworks over the city or a broken-down taxi backfiring down the block.
The first time I saw the Panamanian National Police with their guns I was a little intimidated, though. They were cruising around in their all black uniforms and visor helmets, two per motorbike, with the back rider clutching an assault rifle. I didn’t know they were police until the next day, when a friend filled me in. Again, for a Canadian, this level of armory for a simple street cop seems more than excessive—it’s almost fear inducing. Why should they need to be so well-armed? Is crime that bad? Is the street I’m on unsafe?
Given that Panama is one of the few countries in the world without a military, it’s understandable why these police—and, importantly, their weapons—are ominously displayed. It helps instill a sense of security in the general public. It probably also keeps overly ambitious revolutionary types in check.
Perhaps it’s simply due to my Canadian-ness, that the sight of a gun in public captures my attention. Even in my hometown of Saskatoon, repeatedly ranked as Canada’s most dangerous and murderous city (with rates close to U.S. national averages), firearms aren’t generally seen or heard of. Since that first instance in Panama, I haven’t seen or heard of guns much here in Panama either.
I’m a number guy, so I looked at some data to put it in perspective, and that helped put me at ease. While the murder rate in Panama is higher than in Canada (obviously, given Canada’s is one of the lowest on the world), it is much lower than in many U.S. cities.
I never felt unsafe on my recent visit to New Orleans, where the murder rate is higher than Panama’s national rate, so why should I feel unsafe in Panama? I shouldn’t. Especially given that the areas I tend to hang around in are some of Panama’s safest. And especially given that being a gringo tourist (i.e. someone with a lot of money) means the police have an extra eye toward my safety. The odds are ever in my favor.
Of course, shootings and robberies happen every day, all over the country, but that’s true many places. Crime doesn’t only happen in bad neighborhoods or to people crossed up with the wrong crowd. Walking down the street, sitting in a classroom, a church, a theater, or even opening your front door have all been instances of murders across Canada and the United States in recent years. Bad people exist, and bad things can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, even where you are—right now.
So never mind the guns, you probably won’t get shot in Panama… at least, no more than you would anywhere else.