TCM: The Law of Self Defense in Panama

Approximately two weeks ago an expat, an ex-policeman from Oregon, living in Puerto Armuelles, was convicted of murder by a 7-0 vote of a jury in David.

There is much discussion as to why this man was convicted. To prevent a reoccurrence in Boquete I asked Lic. Julio Espinosa who is local attorney to speak about the law of self defense in Panama.

To appreciate this and other criminal laws in Panama, understand that unlike most developed countries, in Panama if you are arrested for a crime, you are presumed guilty unless you can prove youself innocent.

The following is an unofficial translation of the law.

Acts of self-defense that the local courts may find justified are as follows:    

    • The existence of an unjust aggression, actual or imminent.
    • Using a rational means to prevent or repel aggression.
    • Lack of sufficient provocation on the part of one who advocates or is defended
    • It is presumed to be acting reasonably in self-defense to repel an attack against you,  when without your consent, a person has entered your residence, dwelling, house or room.

What this means is simple in explanation but never simple if you are the person arrested.

The last, highlighted point first. IF YOU ARE IN THE PLACE YOU ARE LIVING, your home, a home you are house sitting, where you are residing and you act to defend yourself from a person who did not have your consent to enter the dwelling the burden shifts. You are presumed innocent unless proven otherwise. It does not cover your car, your front yard or someone you invited into your dwelling.

If this does not apply and you use lethal force, you need to prove the following.

There wast agression against you, actual or imminent and you used a RATIONAL means to prevent or repel the aggression. This section implies that you cannot use excessive force, you cannot shoot someone for hitting you with a fist, repelling a machete attack might be permissible since it is lethal force being met with lethal force. You also must show you or the person you defended did not provoke the attack. Note, the burden of all of this is on the person committing the act. You are presumed guilty if charged.

I can not discuss the case in Puerto Armulles because I do not know all the facts presented to a jury. I will posture this parallel hypothetical situation based upon the accounts of the crime I have heard.

The shooter was a member of a neighborhood watch group. He was watching a neighbor’s house, not residing in it. He witnessed a burglary in progress, armed himself with a shotgun and proceeded to the house. He confronted the burglar, who threatened him with a machete. He shot the burglar, who died waiting for a delayed ambulance. This account, true or not, is the basis for the hypothetical discussion below.

In my untrained interpretation of the law of Panama as stated above applied to the hypothetical shooting in the facts related above. (Note: this is a hypothetical because I do NOT know the facts only the internet chatter) :

1. The shooting did not take place in the dwelling of the shooter.

2. The shooter entered another, unoccupied dwelling with his weapon in an effort to stop a burglary.

3. He was threatened with a lethal weapon and he used lethal force.

It was not his dwelling, he left his dwelling to investigate he was armed. He acted as if he was a policeman, he was not. In doing that, under the law, as I read it, his action of entering the premise armed, could be interpreted as having provoked the machete attack. In that case the the law provides no protection.

You are at home and a neighbor asks you to watch their house. You see a person enter the window, what should you do.

1. Call the police or the Alto al Crimen Hotline 6477-6662  take out your camera and take some photos.

2. Do NOT grab your shotgun and run to confront the burglar.

Crimes against property do not justify death, not in Panama.

Unless you are a police officer in Panama you have no business taking a weapon or trying to stop a crime. The exception is defending another person or yourself, if you or that other person did not provoke the attack. Protecting property even within your own dwelling is not unless you are threatened. The law only changes the presumption of guilt.

I did try a recording of this but I lack the tools to edit it so it is omitted.

If you have additional questions please consult a qualified Panamanian lawyer who is a specialist in Criminal law. Please do not read anything is this post as legal advice, I am not qualified to offer legal advice in Panama and I, not Julio wrote this post.

Edificio Don Alejo, Oficina No. 8
(Edificio de la Caja de Ahorros y El Constructor),
Boquete, Chiriquí, República Panamá,
Télefax (507) 720-2941 y Móvil (507) 6677-5077


  1. Julio’s summary pretty much reflects the Penal Code I posted in one of the shooting threads on Boquete.ning a while back. The only spin I see is the one questioning if protecting oneself from lethal force with lethal force outside of one’s dwelling is justified. I would agree that the aforementioned presumptive clause would not apply in the case discussed nonetheless defending oneself from a individual under the influence of illegal drugs seems to be pretty clearly provided for in the PC. Of course the “facts” of this particular case are unclear.


  2. Hugh Akston says:

    Good post, it is critical to understand local law before acting with lethal force whether you’re living in Panama or camping in California. I appreciate your help in doing my own due diligence!

  3. Bjorn Sefeldt says:

    I would think the shooters former job (trained as a police officer in oregon) hampered him , or took over his senses , to :”its what he was trained as”….
    too bad for him…..having grown up in Sweden where “whover wins a fight loses” in court , I feel for him…

  4. Bud Smith says:

    I think some of the comments add to the apparent confusion rather than clear it up.

    In my opinion, based on the summary of the law provided, it doesn’t really matter if Ron was in the neighbor’s house or outside when the shot was fired. It would not matter if they were both on the street, or in a park or in a public building or wherever. The only real issue the jury should have considered is whether it was reasonable for Ron to use deadly force in the situation that occurred.

    So…looking at the “law” as reported…was there an unjust aggression, actual or imminent? To me, it seems there was. Ron had the permission of the property owner to be at that man’s house. He had a legal right to be where he was located. The burglar had no such right. He was there committing a crime. Ron was in legal possession of the firearm. Ron told the burglar to stop and fired warning shots. The burglar failed to stop and was in the act of attempting to pick up the machete. The machete and the shotgun are both deadly weapons. The burglar’s failure to stop and continuation of his movement toward the machete, and close proximity (thirteen feet) made the likliihood of death or serious physical injury “imminent”

    Since Ron was not in his own home, apparently he has the burden of proving that he was reasonable in fear of death or serious injury and that the means he chose to defend himself were reasonable under the circumstances that existed.

    I don’t know if he is required to prove it by a preponderance or beyond a reasonable doubt. There is a huge difference.

    The fact that he was a member of a group should not matter. He had his neighbor’s permission to be there, so he was lawfully present. It would be no different if McGrew was at a beach having a picnic and I asked him to watch my stuff while I went for a swim and a bad guy came up to steal my stuff armed with a machete. If McGrew told him to stop and he moved on Mrgrew with the machete and he was close enough to do harm, then Mcgrew would have the right to use deadly force.

  5. Bud Smith says:

    I strongly disagree with the assertion that Ron some how “provoked” the machete attack. He had a legal right to be at his neighbor’s house. Provocation means that you have somehow unlawfully initiated the conflict such as in the case of fight where you threw the first punch or caused the fight through some kind of an aggressive act or public insult..

    I also strongly suggest that the statement that deadly force is not permitted to prevent a property crime in Panama. That is definitely not the issue here. It would be the issue if the burglar was shot running away or shot while doing something that was not a threat to the life or safety of McGrew. It is a non issue and only adds to the confusion. Deadly force to prevent a property crime is not allowed in most countries or most states in the United States.

  6. Pete Dominguez says:

    Thanks, very informative.

  7. Once again this was a hypothetical based on the facts I created. I do not know the facts of the case of Ron Mcgrew other than the misc accounts I read online therefore cannot render an opinion. That is why this is a hypothetical.

  8. Bud Smith says:

    Lee–please do not take anything I wrote as something directed at you. That was definitely not my intent. I appreciate the effort to educate I simply wanted to take some of the issues out of consideration because they lead to more confusion than clarity.

  9. Bud, nothing personal here. This is an effort to educate people so they do not end up in legal problems. I cannot argue facts about an event I do not know. The tragedy in Puerto Armuelles with Ron Mcgrew is a tragedy. All any of can do is try to learn from it.

  10. Rob Buckel says:

    All of the posts above have merit assuming the rule of law is present. What seems to be missing is recognition that the jury verdict convicted this fellow with a 7-0 vote. Which leads one to wonder if the factual nuances discussed above are based upon assumptions that are not actually present (i.e. a rule of law).

  11. I do not know what evidence the jury in the actual case heard. I do not know the actual facts. The example is only a hypothetical based upon what I had heard. This is not about the actual case.

    However, if you have ever done trial work you know jurys and lawyers are unpredictable and a jury can nullify or convict based upon the performance or either a good or bad lawyer.

  12. What is scary to me it that if this man, Ron, was “attached” by a man with a machete what does Panama law expect him to do, call the polica? I am afraid this is simply a case of ruling against a “gringo” & make me wonder what is next for “gringos” & ExPats, open season on foreigners? This doesn’t give a “warm & fuzzy” feeling for people considering living in Panamá, coño to the Panamá courts & legal system.
    Saludos~~PanamaLou born in Panamá, living in the DFW, TX area

  13. I was born and lived in Panama until I was 15 years old and visit Panama regularly. I am looking for people who would like to develop a tourist business to bring people from the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas & U.S. areas to visit Panama. I retired from a total different careers in aviation, but looking for opportunities to introduce people to Panama & start a tour business***any suggestions appreciated.
    Panama Lou
    Email: llseldon@verizon.net
    Website: http://panamalou.com/
    Cell # 954-610-5121

  14. Even in the most generous readings of the facts, this hypothetical man placed himself in danger by proceeding with a shotgun to investigate the burglary of a vacant house. Under the laws of Panama he had no such authority. Panama is NOT Texas.

  15. Lee,

    I respectfully disagree with your last post.

    Even though McGrew “placed” himself at his neighbor’s house, he still has the right of self defense. He had a legal right to be where he was. The bad guy is the one who “placed” Mcgrew in danger by going for the machete. It was the doper/coke addic’st/ burglar/career criminal’s decision and his act that escalated the activity to a life and death matter.. McGrew had a right to possess the shotgun and a legal right to be at his neighbor’s house.

  16. gonzalezcaballero says:

    Cley Estenio Gonzalez Caballero, a local David, Chiriqui, attorney, along with Daniel and Giovanny Polanco Rodríguez, two farm care takers, have been accused of taking advantage of probably stealing property from foreigners, or stealing cows from them, or cloning properties owned by foreigners with the help of Public Registry civil servants. Cley Estenio Gonzalez Caballero and the Polanco Rodriguez apparently were hired by the foreigners, who ended up being their victims. As it is usual in Panama, no one has been indicted and no one is in prison. Read the front page headline at respected La Prensa newspaper and a special beware blog, links below:

  17. There is a thread:

    Since both of the newspaper links have gone dead let’s look at the decision:
    http://www.organojudicial.gob.pa/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/rj2013-09.pdf pages 605 to 610

    As I read the last three paragraphs quoted below, the case was overturned on appeal because the accused was not provided with an interpreter.

    En efecto, el artículo 2229 del Código Judicial establece que la instrucción
    sumarial se notificará personalmente al imputado o a su defensor “…El acto que admite o
    rechaza la querella”, y en el caso del señor Mcgrew, era necesario hacerle comprender la naturaleza del acto, ya que tal como quedó plasmado en todo el proceso, no comprende el idioma español, máxime si se trata de asuntos legales que ponen en juego su derecho a defensa.

    El artículo 1950 del Código de Procedimiento preceptúa que los procesos que se
    sigan en contravención a lo dispuesto en artículos precedentes son nulos, y uno de ellos,
    el 1944, alude a que nadie puede ser juzgado sino conforme al trámite legal y con plena
    garantía de su defensa. Indudablemente que la inobservancia del trámite legal
    consistente en garantizar la defensa del procesado, lo cual es de obligatorio cumplimiento durante todo el proceso, coarta la garantía de la correcta defensa penal del sindicado, por lo que la incidencia propuesta debe ser acogida.


    Por las consideraciones anteriores, la SALA PENAL DE LA CORTE SUPREMA
    administrando justicia en nombre de la República y por autoridad de la ley, REVOCA el
    auto de 15 de agosto de 2012, proferido por el Tribunal Superior de Justicia del Tercer
    Distrito Judicial, venido en grado de apelación, y DECLARA FUNDADO EL INCIDENTE DE NULIDAD dentro del proceso penal seguido a Ronald Frederick Mc Grew.


  1. […] is a Blog post that you should read first about a recent incident in Chiriquí. Click HERE for the […]

  2. […] This section implies that you cannot use excessive force, you cannot shoot someone for hitting you with a fist, repelling a machete attack might be permissible since it is lethal force being met with lethal force. You also must show you or the person you defended did not provoke the attack. Note, the burden of all of this is on the person committing the act. You are presumed guilty if charged. Link […]

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