The following is a 100% true story from my 6 weeks in Panama City, Panama. It serves as a lesson to be prepared for unforeseen events to occur, and to try to keep your wits about you when ‘it’ hits the fan.
Special Note: Panama is a very safe country full of great people.
I travel often, and in countries where seeing armed men on the streets isn’t unusual, and most of them are law enforcement. That being said, I’ve often mused over what I would do if I came into contact with armed gunmen. I’m a tall, athletic guy—could I disarm them, or cause a distraction? Whilst in Panama in late 2017, I got my opportunity to find out. I was involved in a full-on armed bank robbery. This is the true story.
I was visiting Banistmo—one of the big banks in Panama City (50th Street and 77th Street East San Francisco, Panama City). For anyone who knows Panama City, you will know that lining up for services is a way of life. Bank staff move at glacial pace, and it’s not uncommon to be in line for 30 – 60 minutes at a time. Keep that visual in mind for when the bandits storm in.
When I had finally reached the front of the line, I quickly realised my Spanish was not adequate to ask for the documentation I needed. Resigned to my fate of having to start again at the back of the cue, I trudged off to the far corner of the bank, pulled out my laptop, and buried myself in Google Translate.
Then it happened. At first I didn’t know what the commotion was. Five men ran into the bank shouting in Spanish. Still sipping my coffee, I looked up from my screen to see four men rush past me, while the fifth brandished an assault rifle—pointed right at me, and holding open the security doors.
This is the point where fight or flight kicked in. It wasn’t a conscious decision, instincts took over. I dropped the coffee & laptop (for which I would later be frustrated) and dove full length across the bank floor. How I knew to dive towards the pillar in the middle of the room, I simply don’t know. Whilst the gunman could still see me, I was much less exposed in my new position.
Emotionally everything stopped. You don’t have time to feel scared, nervous or anything else. All you can do is think about survival. Those first few seconds are now completely wiped from my memory. It’s not a conscious decision, your body just takes over.
After the initial shock and automatic response, my senses came back to me. Now I started thinking about my valuables. I had with me a bag full of:
- A new top-line Mac laptop
- iPhone 6s
- Passports – Both Australian & Canadian
- US$500 in cash
- All my work notes
- and all manner of other electronics I carry in my bag
Now, the need for self preservation took a slight deviation. My conscious state came back to me, and while I was still not feeling emotions, logic was creeping in. I rationalised that if I could subtly hide these valuables, I could minimize the potential fall out. It wasn’t likely they would shoot, so I probably had a little leeway.
First, I reached into my pocket. To my right about 2 two meters away was a Christmas tree with a blanket at the base. In one smooth motion I slid my phone across the carpet and it lodged perfectly under the carpet. It was completely safe.
Next, I looked to my left and saw my laptop just about an arms length away. This was more dangerous. Stretching to my maximum I was exposing myself to the gunmen, but again I rationalised he wasn’t going to shoot someone without cause, and they seemed much more interested in the tellers. So with that, I gave it a little shove and managed to push it underneath a nearby coffee table. It was still visible, but much harder to see, particularly for robbers in a rush.
It had now been a couple minutes, the robbers had filled a bag with money from the tellers and were dashing towards the doors. One stopped and grabbed a phone from a man on the ground, another a wallet. Then as fast as they had arrived, they were gone in flash.
As the men ran for the door, I noticed an old woman to my left. She was crying and wailing uncontrollably. I later found out it was because a family member had been killed in a shooting somewhere else in the world. Without thinking, I rolled over to her and took her in
my arms. Covering her body with mine, her head in my arms, I held her. She cried and cried, I cuddled and cuddled. Long after the bandits were gone, we were still lying on the floor together. Finally the police arrived, and a specialist took over.
Later, the woman and her husband thanked me. They were extremely thankful, but, in all honesty, it was nothing more than common sense. Someone is in need, go and help them however you can. When we parted ways she paused for a hug and a photo with me. It’s the last I saw of her, but she is always in my mind.
The wrap up
Now, it wouldn’t be one of my stories if there wasn’t a bit of levity.
The police arrived in numbers, as did the media. Unfortunately, the crack team they sent really didn’t know what to do, and worked at the same pace as the bank employees…slow.
As confusion reigned, the people milled together and started sharing their experience with each other. Most had been standing in line together, and this had caused the bandits to literally jump over them to get to the teller. For those near me, we all had the same idea: to find whatever cover was available.
After four or five hours of the police interviewing and fingerprinting everyone, I was literally the last person left. I was also the only one who didn’t speak fluent Spanish. They looked me up and down, asked several times how good my Spanish was, and then finally said “don’t worry about it, you can go”. How I love Latin American attitudes.
Not one to miss an opportunity, I refused to leave until the bank manager quickly ran an errand for me. Reluctantly, she printed off the document I needed. I was $15 short of the total I had anticipated. I turned to go back in, and was told in no uncertain terms, that the bank was closed. The next day at 9am I was back at Banistmo. The line was twice as long.
The Wash Up
In the end, nobody was hurt, and the robbers got away with three cases of money. It has not been reported in the press how much that is worth, nor if they have been caught (assume that means they haven’t).
The best two newspaper articles are:
For those with better Spanish Google skills than me, please let us know if you find a better article, or if the gunmen ended up getting caught.
What I learned
Firstly, it’s nothing like in the movies, or my day dreams. Fight or flight and your basic human instinct for survival become of paramount importance. Your mind goes blank, and your body springs to action.
After a few seconds, your brain kicks back in and you start to rationalise the situation. Huge waves of adrenaline pump through your system. Despite this, it turns out a gunman is much further away than you thought, and your best bet is simply to stay down and find cover.
Finally, try as you might, it takes hours for the adrenaline to go away. This is no midnight coffee. Your body knows what was going down and stays alert for the time to come.
Safety Travel Tips
There’s not much you can do in these situations. They are rare and unusual. All you can do is be smart, and ensure you have:
- Good travel insurance (I recommend SCTI)
- Spare money hidden somewhere
- Spare credit card hidden somewhere
- Always have a picture of your passport online
- I recommend 1Password for keeping all your passwords & docs secure
Don’t let fear get the better of you. The world is a great place, and often it’s the poorest people that have given me the most. I wouldn’t change a thing about how I travel, just be smart and have backups.