Letter Re: My Experience in Expatriating to Panama

Dear JWR,
Regarding “My Experience in Expatriating to Panama”, by Chuck Holton: I too lived in Panama from 2008 to 2012 and while I agree with almost everything the author says, there are some exceptions I’d like to discuss.  First covers the medical system.  I was in the local hospital four times from 2010 to 2012 and the doctors were never able to discover what my problem was.  Nothing earth shattering or unusual, I have cancer and not a rare type either.  I used a private hospital the first two times and after running up bills in excess of $15,000 and still no answer to what the problem was, I signed myself out.  My next two sessions under Panamanian medical care was at a state run hospital and although the cost was much less, the results were the same.  So I’d have to say that my experiences there with the local doctors was vastly different then the authors.  I had to return to the states to find out what my problem was/is and that took about three days at a small county hospital.  My experience taught me that the private doctors are only out for the money when a “gringo” is the patient and the state run hospitals are seriously lacking in training or abilities.
I’ll address next the gun laws in Panama.  The author is correct in what he says, up to a point.  Guns are available, at a very steep price compared to prices in the US.  And it takes almost forever to get said license from the government, after you have first purchased a firearm, but not received it, and supplied all the necessary documentation.  It took me almost a full year to get my license and in that time I was robbed of almost everything we owned of value by three young men.  The fact that I had been robbed didn’t do anything to speed my application either.  The author also didn’t go into the cost of purchasing a firearm and ammunition.  As I indicated, the costs are almost double for a pistol in Panama compared to what it costs here.  I purchased a Taurus .38 revolver that cost me almost $700 and ammo for it was going for about $30 a box or 50 full metal jacket (FMJ) ammunition.  You can’t legally buy any sort of more effective ammunition either, nor can you bring it with you when returning to Panama after a visit home.  On the flip side, firearms can be purchased from private parties without going through the time and hassle of doing it the legal way.  I was able to buy an old Colt police positive revolver from a neighbor after the robbery for about $100.  But when I tried to bring some frangible ammo back with me in 2010, it was confiscated at the airport and cost me almost $150 mordita [“the bite”] (aka bribe), to the local federal cops.  BTW, it took the police over an hour to get to my house after several calls were made reporting the incident.  The police couldn’t find my house.  In other words, response time in rural Panama is much worse then even Chicago or Detroit.
As for la mordita, that’s a way of life in Panama.  Most things can be gotten quicker if your willing to pay for it.  But not all.  About a year after my robbery I read in the local paper that 3 men had been arrested for a robbery similar to mine and their pictures in the article looked very similar to the men who robbed me.  I went to the police station and asked to look at the men in a line up to see if was them and to be able to add my experience to the current case against them.  I was told that my case was an “old one” and that I’d need to get a lawyer and petition a judge to “allow’ me to see the men and re-open my case.  In other words, I’d need some lawyer to “grease” the way for me to get some form of justice.  Mordita in another name.
All in all I agree with the author on most aspects of his article.  My experiences there were not all bad and I made some good, lasting friendships with the locals.  The climate is wonderful, the water is the best in the world, the foods are fantastic and the beaches are great.  But it isn’t for everyone.  It has some problems that need to be understood and addressed before you make a decision to move there.  One thing the author didn’t discuss was the taxes in Panama.  For me, a retired veteran owning my own home, there were no taxes.  However if you are working and own a business with local employees, the tax structure and employee benefits package can be tricky, especially if you have to fire an employee.  That can cost you big bucks.  Also the banking system in Panama has allowed the International Order to monitor and change it’s laws and procedures.  It is no longer the tax haven for expats it once was. – K.A.S.

JWR Replies: The situation for firearms ownership in Panama has actually worsened, since you left. There is currently a “freeze” on gun importation by gun shops in effect, and it is “hoped” that this freeze will end sometime in 2015. There is also a ban on centerfire semi-auto rifles as well as on any guns chambered for military cartridges. (The latter is the norm in countries that have been wary of potential coups and uprisings.)

It is unfortunate that one of the countries with the lowest crime rates in Central America has become less appealing, in recent years. The banking advantages are just about gone in Panama, and firearms ownership rights look doubtful. I am hopeful that some new free trade zones and zones and semi-autonomous districts might be developed in the next few years, but that remains to be seen.

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