I just read an article in the Nuevo Herald of Miami wherein it noted that a recent opinion survey of Panamanian residents was taken and the results surprised me. Out of 1,000 respondents slightly more than 70% have a strong fear of falling prey to street crime. Only 28% of those surveyed have little or no fear of it. Furthermore, 41% feel a strong fear of street crime at night when they return to their homes or when walking in the streets and 31% admit a moderate fear.

These responses astonished me for two reasons. First, it seems to me that the inverse of the results would be more applicable (that 41% would have a fear of general street crime and that 72% would fear crime at night). And secondly, that there is such a high number of people who are anxious about becoming a statistic. I have been to Panama many times for extended stays and I have never felt unsafe there. In fact, I have never seen any situation that would have made me feel at risk and neither do I get around with a chauffeured driver. I walk quite a bit both to meetings and during my free time and I even run in the streets at night. Additionally, my friends, colleagues and business contacts there have never even uttered a word about any concern for personal safety (oops, that may reflect their true feelings about me!). Further, many houses are not fenced in as in many other Latin American and Caribbean countries. Perhaps as a non-resident ignorance is bliss, but before venturing out I ask what the public safety situation is and I pay attention to the responses.

Regarding the Nuevo Herald’s article, I checked with my good friends at the Panama American Chamber of Commerce and they informed me that rates of street crime are actually quite low and that they do not view crime as a serious issue in Panama. Their quote to me about this subject is, “The American Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Panama notes that while crime—especially petty crime—is increasing, crime in general and violent crime in particular are low: considerably below levels in the U.S. and Canada. In Panama last year there were 6.2 crimes per 1,000 population (the U.S. rate was 80 per 1,000 and Canada’s was 75 per 1,000). Assaults ran at .9 per 1,000 population (the U.S. rate was 7.6 per thousand; 7.1 in Canada). As with any city, there are areas that one should not venture into at night and a few that are not great in the daytime either for non-residents. But in general, Panama is a safe country to visit and a delightful place to live.”  Given this “testimony” from the Panamcham, why is there a difference between perception and reality?

From my experience in Latin America and the Caribbean, the contrariety may be due to “relativity.” In the past, the sense of encroaching criminality was much less in many cities of the region. However, due to the growing urbanization and economic development over the last few years there has been a modest increase in small crime and/or the new urban development seems less friendly and more threatening. I witnessed this very phenomenon when travelling in Santiago, Chile three years ago. Several Chileans expressed their distress to me that now they had to lock their front doors at night, that before they never had to do that (unless an angry wife wanted to keep her carousing husband at bay at 3 a.m.!). For me, having to lock the doors is not so significant; but, to them it is a shockingly disagreeable shift in behavior and a sure indication of societal decay. As chance would have it, one of those same mornings while waiting at the hotel restaurant for a Chilean client (a people almost Swiss in their punctuality) I noticed the country’s early news report. Tragedy of all tragedies, the top News Alert was that during the previous night a thief had broken in to a small business and stolen 20 video cameras. It was treated with the same U.S. sense of urgency and importance as if someone had returned home to find a family member dead on the living room floor. Before I could mention to the waitress that the story was perhaps not as significant as the reporters were presenting it, she expressed horror that something like this should have happened…what has happening to Chile’s fine sense of civic responsibility. At the time I was slightly bemused by their innocence. Later, I realized sadly how those of us from first tier industrialized countries had allowed our expectations for public safety to drop so low.

-David Berger

Based in Miami, David Berger is Managing Director for Latin America & The Caribbean region at NAI Global.