Corruption In Panama
“In my four years driving around Panama,” writes Editorial Assistant Rebecca Tyre, “I have been pulled over by the police about a dozen times.
“Sometimes I understand the reason; sometimes, not really. I’ve been stopped for talking on my cell phone while driving (a no-no in Panama), for speeding, and for driving in the passing lane longer than I should have. Other times, I have no idea why I’ve been pulled over.
“The first couple of times I was stopped, I tried to reason with the officer in an attempt to avoid getting a ticket (something they always assure you will be ‘muy, muy caro‘–that is, very expensive).
“Usually this is followed by the officer explaining that he will pretend nothing happened if only I contribute to his children’s school fees. Discretely I hand him US$5, and he sends me on my way.
“After ‘donating’ to the police in this way several times, I thought I’d try a different approach. What would happen if I refused to pay the bribe?
“The next time I was pulled over, the officer hinted clearly that he was interested in having his palms greased. I told him to give me the ticket. He refused. I wouldn’t bribe him. He wouldn’t write the ticket. The two of us sat stubbornly on the shoulder of the road for more than an hour. Finally, he got bored and let me go. No ticket, no bribe.
“Panamanians have a name for police officers who pull motorists over just to make some extra cash. They call them ‘coimeros.‘ Bribing officials, be they local politicians or police officers, is so common in Panama that Transparency International gives this country a 4 ranking (on a scale of 5) in its just-released ‘Perception of Corruption’ index. A 5 on the scale means extremely corrupt.
“Panama, according to the index, has a higher perceived level of corruption than Chile, Peru, or Colombia.
“Though they don’t condone it, Panamanians seem pretty used to bribery as a way of life. Expats living here tend to react differently. While I am usually ok with the idea of paying a bribe, especially if I am in a rush, many are opposed to the idea on principle.
“I’m not the only one in our office who seems to attract the attention of the highway patrol. Resident real estate investing advisor Lief Simon, driving here less than a year, has already been pulled over a dozen times. From the start, he’s taken the position that he’s just not going to pay the bribe. Somehow, each time, he’s gotten off. No bribe, no ticket. In one case in Veraguas, he made friends with the officer.
“Lief’s luck came to an end a couple of weeks ago, though, when he was pulled over (again) for speeding, refused to pay the bribe, and was, finally, handed a ticket. This makes him officially the first person I’ve known in Panama to receive a traffic ticket. Now he’s deciding if he really needs to pay it or not.
“If you are going to be driving in Panama, decide ahead of time the position you want to take. Sooner or later, you’ll be pulled over. If you don’t want to encourage corruption and would rather receive a ticket, be prepared to spend a lot of time convincing the officer that you are not going to bribe him.
“Definitely, it’s more expedient to slip him or her a little cash. If you intend to go this route, make sure you have a $5 bill on you at all times when behind the wheel. No police officer is going to make change for a twenty.”