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Which Country is Safer: Nicaragua, Costa Rica, or Panama?

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Crime in Latin America Costa Rica Nicaragua PanamaThese days, with all the governmental turmoil in Costa Rica, some expats and others who want to retire in this part of the world are beginning to take a closer look at Nicaragua and Panama as possibilities, many focusing on the comparative crime rates as a major criterion in their choice. Nicaragua in particular is being promoted as the future “next Costa Rica” because of its supposedly lower crime rate and lower cost of living. They base this mainly on the country’s murder rate as the sole indicator of crime, and conclude that all crime in Nicaragua is also low.

True, the crime rate in Nicaragua is somewhat less than the present rates in Costa Rica, but it is rapidly accelerating and is projected to overcome that of Costa Rica in the next few years. The country’s present crime rating by the Overseas Advisory Council (OSAC) is “critical” in its recent evaluation done in April of this year. The situation in Nicaragua is critical also depending on when the Zetas, who presently occupy the countries to the North, will arrive there. This is also a great threat to Costa Rica.

Another possible reason for the lower crime rates in Nicaragua is that for having less “easy pickings”, being the poorest country in the isthmus, many of the more hardened and ambitious gang members have migrated to Miami and Costa Rica.

In Nicaragua, there are an increasing number of gangs becoming more violent, and crimes such as pick-pocketing, mugging, purse snatching, and armed robberies are now widespread in public places, crowded buses, and near ATMs. Violent crimes such as assault and armed robbery have been regularly occurring in the poorer neighborhoods, but now they are now spreading to the more exclusive neighborhoods and major resorts and hotels.

The crime wave is now also being felt at tourist destinations, where masked assailants hide in the roadsides and stop vehicles to rob the tourist passengers. They block the road with rocks or tree branches, and when the driver stops to move them, the robbers jump out to rob everyone in the vehicle. Here in Costa Rica, probably the favorite way of accomplishing the same thing is to puncture a tire on the victim’s car –- usually a rental car — then follow it until the tire goes flat and the driver stops. Also, as in Costa Rica, criminals sometimes pose as police officers to stop and rob the drivers at gunpoint, usually at night.

In the more remote areas of the country, particularly at the beaches, violent crime is rapidly increasing in the form of sexual assaults, theft, home invasions, and robberies by criminals with knives, machetes and firearms. In 2007, a US citizen was raped and murdered. In Costa Rica, 14 US citizens have been killed since 2007, and in the past year, 11 US citizens were sexually assaulted.

Kidnappings are becoming a major concern in Nicaragua, as taxi “express” kidnappings are on the rise. Express kidnappings are when someone hails a cab on the street, gets in, and then is transported to the kidnapper’s lair. Several expats travelling from Costa Rica to Managua by bus have been victimized by persons offering to help them find or share a cab when arriving in Managua. After traveling a distance, the cab stops and the victims is robbed and forced to reveal the PIN numbers of their credit cards. Then the prisoners are held until their accounts are drained and then they are usually released unharmed but penniless in a remote area. But female victims are known to have been raped or sexually assaulted, or at least threatened with such if they do not comply.

The problem is that Nicaragua is a very poor country, and has an underdeveloped national police force (only 18 policemen per 10,000 persons) and because of this, the majority of crimes are not reported because the police are not equipped to act. The result is a deceptive picture of low crime rates, while in reality the country is engaged in a trajectory of increasing crime that will lead it to be on par with Costa Rica, or even higher. The rate of corruption in Nicaragua (65.71%) is considerably higher than in Costa Rica (39.94%)

Panama is relatively safe in comparison with other countries of Central America, but with rates generally higher than one would expect to find in most parts of the United States. In 2009, there were approximately 800 homicides, compared to the 520 in Costa Rica in 2010. When adjusted to populations (Costa Rica 4.5 million and Panama 3.5 million) Costa Rica has roughly half the homicide rate of Panama.

The following are selected crime criteria comparisons for Panama and Costa Rica with dates between 2003 and 2007, depending on the date of each study. More information can be retrieved by clicking on Panama or Costa Rica.

Total incarcerated: Panama 10,350 (.003% pop) Costa Rica 8.526 (.002% pop).
Car thefts: Panamá 566 Costa Rica 4,385
Drug Offenses: Panama 1,484/100,000 Costa Rica 1,099/100,000
Frauds: Panama 261 Costa Rica 1,849
Acquittals: Panama 1149 Costa Rica 1,753
Corruption: 10.75% Costa Rica 39.94%
Software Piracy rate P 74% CR 61%
Total Crimes: Panama 21,058 Costa Rica 40,263

Unlike Costa Rica, Panama has a large problem in human trafficking. It is largely internal, with rural women and children victims being transported into urban areas for commercial sex and labor exploitation.

While the homicide rate is increasing in Nicaragua, it is in a downward trend on Panama and Costa Rica, largely because both countries are beefing up their police forces. But simple theft rates are on the upward curve in all three countries, as are home invasions especially in the more affluent neighborhoods.

Another shared trend in all three countries are the express kidnappings; in Panama, the criminals force the victim to accompany them to different ATMs until the funds are all withdrawn, and then release the victim unharmed. But the kidnapping rate in Panama is much less than in Nicaragua.

As in Costa Rica, in Panama there are many types of credit card schemes and unauthorized use of credit cards. And, like here, the old “Mickey Finn” is used in the bars to drug victims and rob them.

Another popular scam there is to obtain emergency phone numbers from a tourist, then calling family members saying their loved one has been injured in an accident or has been arrested, and to please send money to them so they can help.

Smuggling is one of Panama’s biggest problems in law enforcement, mainly because of its strategic location. This opens up opportunities for narco-trafficking, money laundering, smuggling of illicit knock-off merchandise, and human trafficking. This, of course, is a constant problem on the Costa Rica – Panama border.

It is possible the Mexican style gangs and cartels will be able to penetrate Nicaragua and then Costa Rica. Their next move would be to develop themselves in Panama, thus conquering the remaining relatively safe countries in Central America.

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