Friday, May 9, 2008


My sense of time is rather vague these days. I haven't worn a watch in just about exactly a year (and don't know where it is) since my trip to Brasil last year, and that was only to make sure I caught planes. I only know the days of the week (and even then wake up thinking it's Wednesday and it's actually Thursday) in order to unlock the gates and the bodega for Darío, our world's wonder gardener and handyman.

Which brings me to the subject title.

About 3 months ago (or last week or last year--that time sense again) or so, an email went around a particular email list from a woman who wrote about the crime wave, basically, that had been taking place in the Jaramillo area. I won't go into details, but basically this woman and others had moved down here having bought into the total BS that Panamá in general and Boquete in particular was "Paradise". She actually used that word when describing her shock and disappointment at having discovered the serpent--a fine old Latin American activity called the High Science of Theft. She talked about how she and others didn't have the iron grates (verjas) on their windows, no security doors--and to my dropped-jaw disbelief, how they never locked their doors and left their windows open. And then, poor babies, they were shocked--SHOCKED--when they were robbed.

At first I refused to believe the email was real--I thought it was someone's idea of a joke. Tell me, is there any place left in the US where you'd do that? I don't think so. My brother lives in the Phjoenix area and when I was there about 2 years ago on what was my first and hopefully last visit to the US since moving here, the paper was full of stories about armed robberies (we won't discuss 5 murders in the two weeks I was there) and even a series of 3 atttempts to steal ATMs by means of fork lifts!!

So why do it here? Especially in Latin America where good neighbors will steal from one another. One of our Potrerillos acquaintances was complaining that he thought his neighbor was stealing his chickens (but then he's obsessed with these chickens, I swear, so who knows).

In Brasil, every house is its own compound. Almost all are surrounded by at least 10 ft brick walls with portões--iron security gates like our puertas here, and they are topped--set in concrete--with shards of thick glass from broken Coc Cola bottles or the equivalent. The houses have grades on the windows and portões for all the doors. The doors themselves have triple locks. I saw that everywhere in the Northeast where I spent the most time--in the cities, towns and countrysides unless it was really poor settlement.

The people I stayed with the most often and longest were marginilzed. One year when I arrived there, Lúcia was in a state because the night before, someone had managed to get over their gate and steal the dishtowels she had hanging overnight on the line. I spent a lot of time talking with missionaries of various denominations from various countries (I was especially fond of the Irish ones), many of whom had spent time in other Latin American countries, such as Chile. The situation varies from country to country only by degree. Theft is a way of life. Prejudiced as I am in favor of Brasilians, whom I adore, I think they run the cleverest scams in all of Latin America. Brilliant, creative people.

So, when I came to Panamá, I simply assumed that's the way it would be. For a year, we rented a Panamanian house not far from where we are now, and the house had it all, including a security alarm system. The only thing that was missing, I noted, was the broken glass on the concrete walls; I was told that it does occur in Colón. I was quite surprised when I saw gringo houses that didn't have the verjas and puertas. I was told it wasn't really necessary here in rural Portreillos. Nevertheless, when we started building, we ordered heavy duty iron doors for our main entrances, and I also ordered verjas for the windows. I ignored the extraordinary helpful American who flatly told me that he wouldn't live behind bars like some common criminal. He's the same one who now has razor wire on top of his walls. Every time I pass that house, it reminds me of a concentration camp or the Baghdad Green Zone. I prefer our functional iron grates, and our fence gates are really pretty. But to each his/her own.

We, too, have been robbed, but not in the house. We built our bodega (storage structure) first, in order tto keep cement and other construction materials safe. The C-beams (cariolas) and barra we kept at our rental house, since I was warned that, given the price of steel, cariolas had a tendency to wander off from a construction site. Eric, our builder, and I discussed the design, if you can call it that, and he suggested ornamental blocks for the two small ventilation windows. We both agreed (because I specifically asked him) that it was unlikely that anyone would break in through those windows.

Two years ago, I woke up one morning, went out to the bodega--and discovered that $800 worth of gardening equipment, including our lawn mower, and tools had been stolen in the night. We'd been hit by a gang (as it turned out, out of Dolega) of at least 4 people who had a vehicle on the ganadera road in back of us beyond the small pasture that borders our property. We could see the wheelbarrow (ours) tracks across the grass to where the vehicle had been parked.

The ganadera has a post and barbed wire fence along the boundary line of the two properties. What the thieves had done was to remove a post--4" x 4" x 6 ft--and use it to oh so carefully and quietly break down the window on the side of the bodega that faces away from the house. It was raining that night and we had the windows closed in the house. We had two dogs at the time, but they are inside dogs (as these people knew because it clearly was an inside job) and will remain so--I have no intention of having our dogs poisoned over a lawn mower.

There had been two robberies down the road from us within the past month, and I already knew the procedure. I took myself dutifully down to the police station in Dolega. Services here are split weirdly, and for police, we're in the Dolega district. I had to transport the two police officers here to our place, because at that time, the police had no vehicle whatsoever. They looked around, made obvious comments, and then I returned with them to file a report.

Technically, after that, the PTJ--the investigative arm--was supposed to come up from David and do their thing. They never showed. I never expected it, anyway--I'm too used to Latin America to have any faith that an understaffed, badly trained police force on foot was going to have any impact. While I detested losing this stuff and having to replace it at higher prices, still, it's only stuff. If you're typically American and are going to get raving uptight about this kind of thing--you're so attached to your stuff--do yourself a favor and stay in Phoenix. Don't move here.

There's a lot more to the story but for the sake of space and potential boredom, I'll leave it out. Suffice to say, it probably was due to a sullen young man we had here for a brief period of time as a worker who was an informante for the gang--for who knows what--a drink at the cantina? Some money? Because his girlfirend's brother was in the gang? At least the representante (sort of like our Congresspeople) was convinced it was so. He advised me to get a gun. Absolutely not, period, next item. He was distressed that, at that time we didn't have cyclone fencing around our house. We still don't, although we have put up fencing to keep stray horses out and Fred in. He arranged for random, increased patrols by temporary help in the area. For whatever reason, we've had no more of that type of theft, although we had another major robbery next door about 2 months ago.

Again, my time sense is awful, but it seems to me that about 4-5 months ago--some time last year--the Dolega police accompanied by a major in the National Police from David came around in a brand-new Mitsubishi police van, to "show the flag" (and show off their new vehicle) in the area. I happen to like the Dolega police--I think they're nice guys. Our next-door neighbor gives them cookies and juice when they come around to inquire about the robbery. At our age, they're sort of like adopted nephews.

A few weeks ago, they appeared at our gates. Turns out that while the government supplied money for the vehicle, they had not allocated the funds necessary to keep it up. The vehicle needed minor repairs and routine maintenance, and the Dolega police did not have enough. So they came around to us, the gringos and the middle-class Panamanians who live in the neighborhood, asking for donations. We immediately donated, as did others. They told us later that they had managed to get most of what they needed from us and then scraped together the rest (god alone knows how and I don't want to ask).

And before I get tut-tuts of superior indignation, the US does EXACTLY the same thing only in a different way. I remember perfectly well how, 5 years ago, the sheriff of Island County pleaded for money for two more patrol cars (we had exactly 3 for I don't know how many square miles--probably about 75) and more personnel. Instead, since the enlightened voters of the county like Americans everywhere voted down an increase in property taxes that would fund such services, the force was actually cut despite a dramatically increasing crime rate.

Recently, there was a horrible robbery in Buena Vista, on the way to Volcán. If you want to read about it, go to Chiriquí Chatter (link on right), Don Ray Williams' outstanding blog, because he has the story as we know it. I had lunch Wednesday with a dear friend of mine who lives in Volcán. Sharon was concerned that the prime suspect was let go, despite what appears to be a great deal of incriminating evidence against him. Still, no one knows the complete story. And who knows whose brother, son, nephew, cousin or in-law he was?

Two days ago, a very well known blogger who lives in Honduras was robbed. You can read about it on her post in La Gringa's Blogicito--link at right.

I happen to think that the Panamanian Federal government wants to protect the ex-pat community because they do recognize the goose that's laying the golden eggs. I have found most local people (with the exception of Boquete where anti-Americanism is on the rise and for both good and bad reasons) favorably inclined towards the ex-pats for the same reason. So I'm reserving judgement.

Physically, I feel safer here than I ever felt in the US, but that's another story.

The lesson, I think, is that the probability of being robbed is near 100%, but you can take steps to minimize your losses. And believe me, the majority of Panamanians are on your side because they get robbed, too. If anything, they're more afraid than we are because unlike most of us, they don't have the reserves to replace what little they have. I gossip a lot with Darío, and know the situation here in this pueblo. But just be aware that you're in a culture where this is a way of life and there is very little help for you if (probably when) it occurs.

And for god's sake, please don't anyone write to tell me, the way they have Don, that guns and vigilantes are the answer. We've had 4 years of that mine-is-longer-than-yours attitude in Iraq and it's worked so well. And if guns were the answer, the US would be one of the safest places on earth. It's so safe that even your kids are blowing away their schoolmates and college campuses are places of fear. All that will happen is escalation and then we will have a US here in Panamá--the worst aspects of our culture. There are other ways.

Time for the regulation hour and a half of weed eating.

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