Jackson: Cops, robbers and guns shown in police graphics

This past week the police put on a gun destruction show in which more than 1,300 firearms were destroyed. They do this from time to time. Most of the weapons they destroy are pistols that could be legal with the right papers for the person with the right permit. Policia Nacional photo.

Yes, we do have this crime wave

by Eric Jackson, illustrated by police photos


Got her! These two maleantes followed a woman from a bank in Chanis to her home, at the door of which they robbed her. Still from a Policia Nacional video. Some of the video stills may have enough detail to identify the guys’ faces, so their escape on foot — to an awaiting getaway car, or to pass off to a third person on foot, perhaps? — may just be a temporary victory for them. The police are telling people not to obtain and carry guns, but to beware of being followed away from banks or ATM machines.

Yeah, yeah. We will have somebody, very likely a gringo — less likely a gringa — who will blame the woman for not having had a gun in her purse to whip out and shoot the two men who robbed her. I can just hear their “brave” second-guessing and boasts about their arsenals. “If some guy….”

Wait a minute. Reality check time!

  • “Some guy,” singular? The thugs here, particularly those engaged in violent economic crimes, usually don’t work alone. So maybe she’d need an automatic or semi-automatic weapon when outnumbered and taken by suprise, the big strong armed citizens might say?
  • The law here is not like those of Florida or Israeli occupation forces in the Palestinian lands. You don’t get to shoot someone if they make you “feel threatened.” “Stand your ground and shoot, particularly if they are of another race” is not a principle that keeps you out of prison if you shoot another person here. Plus you for the most part don’t get to use deadly force to stop an economic crime.

So are the cops for the robbers? Not to be completely ruled out, as scandals over the years indicate. However, the odds of it are low. Penny ante lawbreakers like these don’t have the money to buy off those law enforcers who are willing to sell out. Drug cartels or corrupt politicians are so very much better at buying the help of the unethical ones among the police.

Remember that the police and the thugs here were very often raised in the same downscale economic conditions. As kids the officers would almost surely have known people who grew up to be offenders, and the offenders would probably have grown up with people who went on to become officers. The badge may create new social relationships, but it won’t erase social memories that are bound to inform perceptions and opinions.

In law enforcement as in journalism, “purely objective” is a myth. People have points of view created by their circumstances and when trying to be fair folks have to acknowledge such things yet summon up the empathy to be able to understand the viewpoints of people unlike themselves. 

The police are going to be wary of stating their opinions to journalists or to the general public. There is a constitutional provision against police officers making political declarations or touching on sensitive matters that implicate public policy decisions.

Some people in the ranks, and some subjects, will have just a bit of immunity as a practical matter. The police force’s party line about drugs is that they are bad and so are the people who use them, who will be treated as scum. The police force’s party line about guns is that whatever the laws say, they will enforce them. National Police chief John Dornheim may go into further detail about those things than that, but to the extent that he does he has to be wary of some of the troubles of his predecessors for making controversial declarations about such things.

However, from director and commissioners down to corporals and rookie officers, Panama’s police officers will be exposed to the reality of guns.

The gun acquired for self-protection in a rough neighborhood or for a job carrying a lot of money — but then its owner self-destructing with it. The statistics kept here are not as detailed as in the USA and the culture may be a bit different, but a great part of the death toll by way of firearms here will be suicides. As the person who has to investigate and write up the report, or the one who has to clean up the mess, a responder may ponder whether it’s just a personal decision rather than a public health issue, or whether the morality of it is just a matter of religious preference. Ah, but these people have a constitutional dodge around talking about such things. The rules say no public declarations.

And the detective who specializes in investigating domestic violence cases? Surely she or he would know about the complications that a gun in the house so often introduces into these messy issues.

Then there is the workplace safety issue. Nobody on the police force wants to be shot to death, no matter the point of view of the shooter.

So actually, collectively, and if there is skeptical dissent those afflicted by it tend to keep it to themselves, the police DO make their public statements about guns. They do it in their trophy videos of people they arrest for weapons offenses. They do it at their periodic gun destruction events.

Most of us, citizens and foreign residents alike, can live with that.

To be cut up into scrap metal.


gun bust
A gun bust in Changuinola.


Leave it to cops and courts to debate whether this is a “weapon of war.” The Panamanian Constitution says: “ARTICLE 312. Only the Government may possess arms and elements of war. For their manufacture, importation and exportation, prior permission of the Executive shall be required. The Law shall define the weapons which are not to be considered as weapons of war and shall regulate their importation, manufacture and use.”


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