As with all stories of theft, I post this story to help good travelers remain safe as they get to know the world. I strongly believe that if more people in the world knew more other peoples of the world, there would be more trade and less war. I want people to travel safely and give themselves the opportunity to get to know local people wherever they go.
This story of robbery relates the theft of two clean, honest, well-presented European travelers by the driver of an official (or official-looking) Panama City taxi (license plate 588431). Both are good sized people, in shape, not overweight, not tiny or weak looking.
1.) Simon, a tall 29-year-old European guy with short light brown hair
2.) Bet, a 25- year-old dark-haired woman who could have been any nationality and was also tall.
Simon was leaving Panama City for northern Panama, so he was carrying his large sick pack and his day-pack to Albook Bus Terminal. Betty was only going to Albook Bus Terminal to buy a ticket for the following day so she had only a few things on her.
Details of the Panama City taxi driver robbery
At 8pm, they went to the bus stop near CMP Hospital/Hard Rock Hotel to take a bus from this safe area of Panama City to Albook. However, the didn’t see where the MetroBus bus stopped and several busses had failed to stop, so they decided to take a taxi. The taxi would only be $5 and it would make life easier. Only they were far out of sight of the hostel where they were staying and no friends saw them off in the cab.
On this busy street, many taxi drivers drive by looking for fares. A taxi pulled over and asked for $10. Ten is well over too high, so Simon told him this. The cabbie’s response was, “Yes but I will give you a safe ride and it is dark out,” But $10 IS too high and as a traveler, one is not inclined to reward usury. My friends rejected the ride.
Another cab pulled over. This driver had not seen the rejected cab pull away and the two had stepped away and waited a minute. This next taxi was clearly marked as a taxi. It had the official-looking taxi sign on top and the familiar black stripes on the sides. License? In Panama, one cannot read a driver’s license once inside the cab. Numbers are only on the outside and this taxi had that.
There was one other man already in the taxi – as is normal in Panama where drivers are permitted to act as a Collectivo and take multiple passengers. Thus, while this may be a red flag in Europe or the US or Canada, it is not necessarily one here. This driver asked only for $3, which is the price a local would actually pay, although lower than what a driver would typically ask of two Europeans. However, Bet did the asking and did so in Spanish and as I mentioned, she could have appeared to be a Panamanian to the driver. They accepted the ride.
The European man did what we consider to be smart; he did not ask to put the backpack in the trunk. This European happens to have a personal policy that if a taxi driver insists on putting his pack in the trunk, he doesn’t take that taxi. He got into the back seat with his pack between him and the woman.
The taxi drove off as the two passengers chatted together in English, their common language. Whether the taxi headed in the correct direction would be unknown to this couple. But at some point, around 10 minutes into the ride, as they were on a major highway, the driver asked the two if they spoke Spanish. They said “poco.” (After the fact we see that this gave the taxi driver and his thieving companion opportunity to plan the robbery in Spanish.)
Maybe 5 minutes later, Bet noticed the road signs and asked her companion if this wasn’t the way OUT of the city. He replied, “Yes, it seems so, but I think he must have to drop off the first passenger first.” After all, this IS the rule. They were a little nervous, but not more than the normal apprehension. However, they continued to travel further out of the city so apprehension grew.
Another 5 minutes later Simon recognized where they were, having been there in the afternoon. He told his companion that it was the entrance to the Metropolitan Park, which closes at dark. Very shortly after this, the driver stopped very close to the entrance of this now-closed, dark park entrance. The victims still thought that maybe this other passenger works at the park or something. (They had concerns, but what could they do?)
Just then the driver told them that they had a flat tire. Bet understood this Spanish so they knew the excuse for the stop.
Only next the taxi driver walked to Bet’s door, opened it and told her, in Spanish, to get out. He was saying something about the bag. She didn’t comprehend this. Then the taxi driver grabbed her bag and shouted to get out, dragging her out and gesturing to be sure the message was clear. Bet was now out of the car and her bag was now thrown back into the car.
Immediately, the companion thief opened Simon’s door and the taxi driver came and dragged him out, making him leave both of his bags both in the back seat.
Simon asked Bet what’s going on, although he really knew at this point. Throughout, Bet conversed with the driver in Spanish, trying to fully understand and perhaps develop a communication and minimize the damages.
Cars are driving by. This is NOT an empty road.
The male robbery victim asked, in his best Spanish, please let me keep my passport. Yes, unfortunately, he didn’t have it under his clothing, but in the daypack which was stuck in the car. The taxi driver robbing him said no.
The taxi driver only replied with a demand to empty his pockets. Simon did not empty his pockets after the thieving taxi driver repeated his demand several times, he reached into one pocket and grabbed the victim’s camera within.
Meanwhile the companion thief was insistently telling the driver thief they needed to go because people were coming. The taxi driver then reached into Bet’s pockets, but they were empty. The two thieves got into the cab and drove off.
Bet got the license plate of the dishonest Panama taxi driver who robbed them — 588431
The taxi thieves had gotten nearly everything my friend owned. However, the driver thief didn’t a have time to get into his other pockets, so he retained his smartphone and wallet.
Bet got the LICENSE PLATE — # 588431
In a few minutes, they were able to get another taxi. This kind taxi driver drove the pair back to the hostel — for free.
Disappointing Panama City police after robbery by taxi driver
The police who handle robbery in Panama City, Panama were called. The events were related and the taxi’s LICENSE PLATE was noted by the Panama City police. One would think this would cause the police to locate the taxi. After all, taxis are on the road, not sequestered away in garages out of sight. A simple notice to all Panama City police that one taxi was involved in a theft SHOULD have brought the taxi to light.
Alas, it did not.
The taxi driver that robbed my friends in Panama City, Panama was not caught. Thus, this taxi driver is out there in Panama City, Panama robbing other travelers or tourists or residents. The police of Panama City should be embarrassed by this! It is not the way to encourage tourism.
My friends related these robbery policemen as uncaring and cold. (This is not the experience I had with white-car uniformed policemen here, nor is it the experience of anger man I know who has lived here for 5 or more years.) Perhaps this difference is because neither he nor I, ever reported theft here.
What makes this frustrating is:
- These robbery victims HAD the LICENSE PLATE — # 588431.
- The Panama City police HAVE the license plate — # 588431.
- The robbery was reported very soon after the robbery took place.
- The robbery took place IN Panama City, not outside of the jurisdiction of the Panama City police.
- The taxi driver COULD have been apprehended while he still had the robbery victims’ possessions in the taxi!
- There is simply no excuse for this taxi driver being permitted to get away with robbing people who innocently get into his taxi.
Ideas to avoid being robbed by a taxi driver
Here are our for safety when taking a taxi, especially when you are noticeably carrying valuables.
- Many drivers give out their cards so you can call that known driver.
- Tell the driver you will need a receipt. This may help you know if the driver is honest and willing to be accountable. (Not all countries may have receipts.)
- Do not get into a taxi that already has another passenger. If in Central America, say “Taxi, no Collectivo.”
- If another passenger gets in, find an excuse to get out?
- Have witnesses see you into any taxi.
- Harder, but have someone take a photo of you getting into a taxi — or better, of you and the taxi driver. (I love having photos of me coming to and leaving places as a memory.)
- Call or text your father or someone each time you gets into a taxi. (The driver would not have a way of knowing if the calls or text goes through. I have a cellular data service at most times.)
- Have your valuables on you, well buried within your clothing.
- When traveling with luggage, have a hotel or shop call a taxi for you. That way the driver is accountable to an office that can be phoned.
- (This tip added later: When you can, use GETT, an app formerly called GetTaxi. (Website) You are riding with licensed taxi drivers. (In NYC drivers must have a TLC ‚ Taxi and Limousine Commission, Driver Licence.) It uses GPS to know where you are and assigns a driver to come to you. The driver is then accountable for his time with you. I first used this in Israel in 2014. It works in the United States (only NY), the United Kingdom (several cities), Russia (several cities) and Israel (several cities). Languages: Hebrew, Russian, English.
One nice note:
I am happy to report that the Panama City Tourist Police were fantastic and caring. They came after the uncaring theft police and they actually drove the robbery victim to his Consulate so he could start the process of obtaining a temporary replacement passport (at a cost of about $200.)