Smash-and-grab peak season (2): “Ordinary” maleantes

Grand Larceny Auto
Auto theft remains a problem, with thieves typically showing preferences for certain areas. Theft of items from cars is a much bigger problem, especially in parking lots crowded with Christmas shoppers. We might argue about the utility of car alarms and possible better alternatives. Policia Nacional graphic.

Garden variety criminals come
out to play during the holidays

by Eric Jackson

Here we are into December and the National Police have yet to issue their comprehensive Season’s Warnings. (Those surely will be coming, but at the moment Panamanian law enforcement is quite busy with the visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.) But those of us who have been observing over the years know the general drill.

Because people carrying money to shop form crowds; because shoppers will buy things that they then leave in cars while they shop some more; and because much of the urban population heads to the Interior for the holidays — Mothers Day (December 8 but that whole extended weekend) is about as important as Christmas and New Year here — there are vulnerabilities and opportunities created.

The commercialization of Christmas in the culture is so profound that churches that ought to know better tend to go with the flow. A seedy side of Christianity — or should we call it a heresy? — is a set of social expectations that drives some usually law-abiding people to feel the need to steal or cheat in order to buy gifts.

Holiday crime is a annual problem, but from year to year various strategies wax and wane among the predatory element.

Will we get the scent vendor ploy this year? It was big for a while, but then some of its perpetrators were caught on video and it became less common. This year we might see a comeback.

The supposed perfume or cologne vendor sprays a sample whiff at the target. The spray is a knockout drops mist, and an accomplice quickly strips the dazed victim of his or her valuables. The old expectation was that the victim, passed out on the sidewalk or staggering around, would be taken for an outlaw in the traditional Common Law sense of it — a person beyond the protection of the law, being a disgusting drug abuser or drunk. The new expectation is that police walking beats are going to be very suspicious of anyone selling any scents on the streets, legitimately so or not.

Are you one of these proud and protected Gringo-flavor “armed citizens?” Are you secure in the knowledge that if some guy tries to rob you — on the street or in your home — you are packing the heat that will make him one sorry guy? If so you would be foolishly thinking in the singular. Pickpockets, purse snatchers, strong-arm robbers and home invaders almost always come plural. If they come armed, they are careful to get the drop. And the gun you may be carrying? That’s one of the most prized items for a maleante to steal.

Be aware of your surroundings. Do not display money or valuables. Put your wallet or money in a front pocket, not a back one. Beware the person who bumps into you or steps in front of you, as that’s the common setup for the person behind you to snatch and grab. (Sometimes to step aside and make a 90 degree turn toward where you were will disrupt the crime.) Beware of people who cut straps by which you carry a purse or bag. Looking the part of a raggedy piedrero or street crazy might get you turned away at certain respectable establishments, but it also might turn off the interest of those looking for someone who has something worth stealing.

Don’t display items in a car, either. Leaving things in open view for someone who can, with a screwdriver, get at them in an instant is the obvious foolishness. But you also need to be aware of being watched. Is there some guy hanging around, watching you put things in the trunk of a car? Get in the car and move it to another place to park, away from that person’s gaze.

Holiday break-ins are another set of issues. So many homes in Panama have bars on the doors and windows, and doors that can lock from the inside. A lot of that is flat-out illegal in many other places, because such security against break-ins is also a terrible fire hazard. People who are burned to death or die of smoke inhalation in front of a locked door that they can’t open are the stuff of legend, not mythology.

But you have reduced that risk by keeping a key near that door? Then a wannabe burglar might, with sticks and mirrors or such, locate, retrieve and use the key to get in. (Leave car keys in such an exposed place and you might get your car stolen that way, too.)

Ah, but now you are away from the crowds and relaxing on the beach? Have you left valuables unattended on a beach blanket while you go in for a dip? Silly you.

Will the police have some new innovation of the criminal mind about which to warn us this season? Probably. But if you combine a bit of common sense and some sensitivity to what’s going on around you, there is a good chance that you will not learn about it the hard way.


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