Corruption, Bribes, and Scams
Nepotism, corruption, amiguismo (cronyism), and conflicts of interest have been serious problems in Panama throughout its history. In 2002, Panama’s then-president, Mireya Moscoso, repeatedly defended nepotism as a long-established tradition in Panama. Panamanians place little faith in their legal system or political parties. Panama has also long been notorious as a transshipment point for drugs and a haven for money launderers.
There have been attempts in recent years to address these problems through new anticorruption commissions, press exposés, stricter banking laws to crack down on money laundering, transparency laws designed to stop illegal deals, subjecting once-secret government and business negotiations to public scrutiny, and removing from the public payroll so-called botellas (literally, “bottles”—well-connected appointees without the skill or inclination to do their assigned jobs).
Many of these efforts have been dismissed as cynical or halfhearted. Reformers in Panama maintain that an attitude of juega vivo (roughly, “live game” or “the game of life”) is still firmly rooted in daily life. Juega vivo refers to a belief that one should grab any opportunity life presents, even if ethically or legally shaky.
Corruption does remain a fact of life in Panama. But societal attitudes seem to be shifting. It’s much more common these days to hear people assert that putting the interests of family and self first can hurt society as a whole, and that Panama cannot be a modern, successful country without trustworthy public institutions.
It’s unlikely most tourists will find themselves in a situation where a bribe is expected. The possible exception is being stopped by a police officer, usually for a traffic violation, and being encouraged to pay the “fine” on the spot instead of going to the trouble of paying it at the courthouse. How to handle this is a judgment call. Some adamantly refuse to pay a bribe out of principle. Sometimes the officer will lose interest and let the violator go; other times this leads to a time-wasting visit to the local courthouse. Paying or offering a bribe is illegal, and theoretically it can get a visitor in far more serious trouble. Others find paying a few dollars the easiest way to deal with the nuisance.
In recent years, there have been reports of travelers being stopped by police repeatedly while driving in western Panama. This occurs between Divisa and David on the Interamericana. They are accused, rightly or not, of speeding or not staying within the lane and then told to pay a “fine” of US$20. Some have refused to pay and are let go; others pay, only to be stopped again farther down the road. The police reportedly spot likely looking tourists as they drive by and radio ahead to their confederates to stop them. Those driving in western Panama should obey the speed limit and all other traffic rules and try as much as possible not to look too touristy.
Those interested in Panama real estate should proceed carefully. Land scams are a problem, especially since the start of the tourist and retiree boom in Bocas del Toro and Boquete. Be especially cautious with timber plantations and other get-rich-quick schemes. If it looks too good to be true, it is. A great deal of land in Panama is untitled, which makes buying it tricky and in some cases legally precarious—don’t “buy” a piece of land from someone who doesn’t actually own it. Some people have been buying into Panama sight unseen, which is nuts. Besides the danger of getting ripped off, Panama is not a place everyone would want to live or invest in. To avoid disappointment, get to know the country first.
Scams against regular tourists are still not much of a problem, though touts and taxi drivers sometimes steer visitors to hotels and services that pay them a commission. Most visitors are more likely to be ripped off by a fellow foreigner than by a Panamanian. But stay alert and be cautious with overly friendly strangers.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition