Panamá’s Safe Neighborhoods program fights gangs with enforcement and rehabilitation

Panamá’s Safe Neighborhoods program fights gangs with enforcement and rehabilitation

By Dialogo
November 25, 2014





Panamá President Juan Carlos Varela’s administration is taking aim at gangs with a two-pronged strategy that includes strong law enforcement efforts with rehabilitation initiatives and social integration opportunities for those who wish to reject a life of crime.

The “Safe Neighborhoods with more Opportunities and a Firm Hand” program was launched on July 1, when Varela was sworn into office. The new president publicly announced a month-long amnesty period for gang members to voluntarily surrender their weapons. He encouraged gang members who wanted to change their lives to join the program. Safe Neighborhoods is also open to delinquents who are not affiliated with a gang.

The response has been strong. As of mid-November, 2,000 former gang members have joined the program, according the Minister for Public Security Rodolfo Aguilera. Some of the former gang members who joined the initiative turned in 200 weapons. The Ministry of Public Security (Minseg) formed five commissions, comprised of public servants, civilians, evangelical pastors, and members of NGOs, to collect the weapons.

“We are attacking gang culture in two ways: first, by extending a helping hand to any youth that wants to join a rehabilitation and reintegration process,” Aguilera said. “We will support those youths with psychological tools, and provide vocational and basic training so that they can become rehabilitated and reenter society by obtaining decent employment. On the other hand, gang members who continue to be involved in illegal activities will be held responsible for all the crimes they commit, to the fullest extent of the law.”

Regarding enforcement, the initiative brings together 15,000 members of the security forces, who collectively form the Anti-Gang Task Force. The task force coordinates the efforts of units of the National Police, the National Border Protection Service, the National Aeronautical Service, and the anti-gang division of the Directorate of Judicial Investigation of the National Police.

“With the establishment of this task force, the President is sending a clear message to these gang members to abandon their activities,” Aguilera added.

Safe Neighborhoods is aimed at the 192 gangs which have a total of 5,000 members operating in Panamá. These gang members are between the ages of 8 and 29 years old, according to the National Integrated Criminal Statistics System (SIEC). They engage in homicide, drug trafficking, kidnapping, theft, and extortion, and many of these gangs fight each other for control of specific neighborhoods throughout the country.

Job training, sports, and cultural activities


To encourage gang members to leave behind these criminal activities, the Safe Neighborhoods program is providing social assistance to at-risk young people, such as $50 in food coupons per week, job training; and sports, cultural, and spiritual activities. The program is concentrated in regions with the highest levels of gang activity, such as the provinces of Colón, Chiriquí, Panamá Oeste (Arraiján and La Chorrera); and the districts of San Miguelito, Panamá Este and Centro.

“When they join the program, the members are required to undergo psychosocial evaluation before beginning basic and vocational education, which will allow them subsequently to have a chance to gain employment,” Aguilera said. “The youths [in the program] must make a commitment to abandon their weapons and their life of crime. The government, in turn, has contacts within private companies and in the public sector who have proven willing to hire [former gang members] and to give them a chance in society.”

One of the groups working to help former gangsters rehabilitate themselves and find honest employment is the Jesús Luz de Oportunidades Foundation. For six years, the organization has provided rehabilitation and re-socialization services for gang members in Santa Ana, El Chorrillo, Curundú, San Felipe, and Avenida Ancón.








Panamá President Juan Carlos Varela’s administration is taking aim at gangs with a two-pronged strategy that includes strong law enforcement efforts with rehabilitation initiatives and social integration opportunities for those who wish to reject a life of crime.

The “Safe Neighborhoods with more Opportunities and a Firm Hand” program was launched on July 1, when Varela was sworn into office. The new president publicly announced a month-long amnesty period for gang members to voluntarily surrender their weapons. He encouraged gang members who wanted to change their lives to join the program. Safe Neighborhoods is also open to delinquents who are not affiliated with a gang.

The response has been strong. As of mid-November, 2,000 former gang members have joined the program, according the Minister for Public Security Rodolfo Aguilera. Some of the former gang members who joined the initiative turned in 200 weapons. The Ministry of Public Security (Minseg) formed five commissions, comprised of public servants, civilians, evangelical pastors, and members of NGOs, to collect the weapons.

“We are attacking gang culture in two ways: first, by extending a helping hand to any youth that wants to join a rehabilitation and reintegration process,” Aguilera said. “We will support those youths with psychological tools, and provide vocational and basic training so that they can become rehabilitated and reenter society by obtaining decent employment. On the other hand, gang members who continue to be involved in illegal activities will be held responsible for all the crimes they commit, to the fullest extent of the law.”

Regarding enforcement, the initiative brings together 15,000 members of the security forces, who collectively form the Anti-Gang Task Force. The task force coordinates the efforts of units of the National Police, the National Border Protection Service, the National Aeronautical Service, and the anti-gang division of the Directorate of Judicial Investigation of the National Police.

“With the establishment of this task force, the President is sending a clear message to these gang members to abandon their activities,” Aguilera added.

Safe Neighborhoods is aimed at the 192 gangs which have a total of 5,000 members operating in Panamá. These gang members are between the ages of 8 and 29 years old, according to the National Integrated Criminal Statistics System (SIEC). They engage in homicide, drug trafficking, kidnapping, theft, and extortion, and many of these gangs fight each other for control of specific neighborhoods throughout the country.

Job training, sports, and cultural activities


To encourage gang members to leave behind these criminal activities, the Safe Neighborhoods program is providing social assistance to at-risk young people, such as $50 in food coupons per week, job training; and sports, cultural, and spiritual activities. The program is concentrated in regions with the highest levels of gang activity, such as the provinces of Colón, Chiriquí, Panamá Oeste (Arraiján and La Chorrera); and the districts of San Miguelito, Panamá Este and Centro.

“When they join the program, the members are required to undergo psychosocial evaluation before beginning basic and vocational education, which will allow them subsequently to have a chance to gain employment,” Aguilera said. “The youths [in the program] must make a commitment to abandon their weapons and their life of crime. The government, in turn, has contacts within private companies and in the public sector who have proven willing to hire [former gang members] and to give them a chance in society.”

One of the groups working to help former gangsters rehabilitate themselves and find honest employment is the Jesús Luz de Oportunidades Foundation. For six years, the organization has provided rehabilitation and re-socialization services for gang members in Santa Ana, El Chorrillo, Curundú, San Felipe, and Avenida Ancón.




Congratulations to our heroes. The police struggle against the gangs is important, but even more important is to overcome the social inequalities produced by these gangs.. The effort being made in several countries is praiseworthy. I hope something like this is done in Honduras. The Panamanian model is effective,
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