Panama City, Panama—Bob and I had come to Panama as guests of the national and local police departments and the Panama National Hotel Association. The Central American country aspires to a boom in tourism and recognizes the need to curb street crime in its cities, tourist areas, and especially San Filipe, aka Casco Antigua, Panama City’s old town and a World Heritage Site.
Bringing in Bob Arno as a consultant to the tourism industry and trainer for police departments and security divisions was a major organizational feat involving numerous government agencies.
(The coup is entirely credited to the gentle, eloquent, and now retired Carlos Sanad of the Office of the Attorney General in Panama.) Bob and I were treated like dignitaries during our stay in Panama, hosted at the country’s newest, grandest resorts, provided with several translators, and always shadowed by bodyguards. We were transported in police vans but, in order to conduct our simultaneous research, often felt the necessity of ditching the navy-suited men talking into their wrists.
When we interviewed Angel and his pal Jaime, we left all badge-bearers outside. What would the gangsters tell us with police present? Perhaps that is why they felt free to demonstrate their pickpocketing techniques and speak of their criminal exploits. That, and Bob’s easy, simpatico demeanor. They showed their choreography with pride.
Bob was unimpressed with the boys’ talent. I was a bit more forgiving: presumably, they were rusty, being officially out of the business. Not to mention under great pressure with an audience of two foreign “filmmakers,” and cameras rolling.
Angel and Jaime claimed they didn’t exploit the credit cards they got in wallets, though they occasionally sold them to a fence. They received so little money for credit cards that they usually just threw them away. They wanted cash; the wallets they took usually contained $40-100, sometimes as much as $200. (Panama uses U.S. currency.)
Now that they’re out of the business, the boys miss the healthy takings they used to enjoy. They find it difficult to live on their legitimate incomes of two to three dollars a day, which they get from the government.