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Panama, once one of Latin America's safest countries, is now home to gangs and drug violence.
PANAMA CITY — A border with Colombia and a gateway to Central America. Trafficking routes via the Pacific and Atlantic. American currency. A money-laundering Mecca. The absence of a military force.
It’s no wonder Panama has long been a strategic thruway for drugs exported from Colombia on their way northward.
But now shifts in the narcotrafficking industry in Panama are sending ripples beyond the insulated world of organized crime and into the cracked asphalt streets of Panama City barrios. Mexican cartels are expanding their control of Panama's drug trade and the country is becoming a stage for drug deals and turf wars. As gang activity, crime and local drug use surge, Panamanians are feeling this Central American paradise transform into a frontline of the drug trade.
“The violence has come to Panama. It’s no longer just a transit country,” said a top law enforcement official at the U.S. Embassy in Panama. The official could not be named because of the sensitive nature of his work.
Though Panama's border with Colombia is a notoriously lawless area, the rest of the country is considered one of the safest in the region, and is best known for the Panama Canal and its role as a financial center in Latin America. As Colombian drug-trafficking groups are reduced in their size, power and longevity, Mexican cartels have taken on the task of moving drugs beyond Colombia’s borders, expanding their reach and dominance of the drug trade.
“They are bringing their operations here, ” said Edwin Guardia, a top drug prosecutor.
The number of Mexicans arrested in Panama on drug-related charges rose 56 percent between 2007 and 2008, according to the proscutor’s office.
And it's not just the actors who are changing, but also the nature of Panama's role in the drug trade. “Before, Panama was just a corridor. Now, meetings and deals are happening here,” said the U.S. law enforcement official.
The country has become a battleground where drug traffickers can settle their vendettas, with Colombians fighting to reclaim their turf from aggressive Mexican narco-expansion.
For years, "tumbadores" — Panamanians who hijack cocaine shipments after being tipped off, often by corrupt police — have flirted with fatal punishment for their lucrative practice.
Today, Mexican narcos aren’t putting up with "lost" shipments attributed to the tumbadores — and are drawing in Panamanians, often local gang members, to do the dirty work. “There are executions when drugs are lost,” said Police Major Raymond Varroso on a night patrol through Panama City. “The Mexicans are paying the Panamanians to seek justice in these cases.”
Panamanians are also filling roles in running drug-dealing networks to feed a burgeoning demand for local consumption of drugs. In July of last year, Panama’s attorney general established an investigative group on local drug trafficking, which has since led to a significant number of arrests, Guardia said.
In the hopes of curbing the narcotrade, Panama adopted a reactive response of stepped-up drug enforcement, though a more integrated strategy to tackle underlying social problems is slowly being implemented.
Last year, Panamanian authorities seized 53 tons of drugs — more than seven times the amount seized in 2002, according to figures from the attorney general’s office. Yet authorities are only able to detect a fraction of the drugs passing through Panama, with an estimated 80 percent trafficked via the ocean. Reports from the U.S. government suggest that for every Panamanian interdiction of drugs, there are three other shipments that escape detection, according to a U.S. law enforcement official in the region.
Not everyone is convinced that boosting drug seizures is what’s needed to fight the narco-industry. “What hasn’t increased is the capture of the groups and their leaders,” said Rosendo Miranda, a former drug prosecutor with the attorney general’s office. “You can’t just capture drugs, you have to capture people.” And it's more difficult to capture the ringleaders than their underlings. “Ninety percent of the time we’re arresting the middle-men,” said the law enforcement official at the U.S. Embassy in Panama. “The goal however, is to bring down the structures.”
Panamanian authorities say they need more resources, while others say more of the same won’t curb the drug trade and local violence. They say what's needed is more advanced technology, leadership and strategy, preventive rather than reactive law enforcement and a better-trained police force with greater capacity at intelligence-gathering.
No matter the strategy, pressure is mounting for Panamanian authorities to take control of spiraling levels of local violence that many say are a direct result of increased local drug activity.
Gang activity has mushroomed, fueled by drug trafficking and theft — there are a staggering 216 gangs, up by almost 150 percent from 2005, according to the National Police. Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli, who was inaugurated in July, has made security one of his top priorities.
“All violence is increasing,” said Police Major Gustavo Cogley, who believes the change is due to narcotrafficking. “Before, you didn’t see as many homicides.” Homicides spiked by 63 percent between 2006 and 2008, according to statistics provided by the National Police, and the number of crimes rose by just over 20 percent between 2003 and 2008.
But police, officials and other observers warn of the dangers of blaming the violence squarely on narcotrafficking. “Narcotrafficking alone is not the generator of the violence,” said Danilo Toro, a sociologist and consultant on security and social issues. “Other factors have to be considered.”
With youth participating in much of both petty and serious crimes, many point to poverty and a lack of social and educational opportunities as major factors that propel them toward crime and gangs. (See photo gallery on how violence is playing out in Panama City.) “I’ve seen that more and more kids are not staying in school,” said Adrian Montano, coordinator at Juntos Podemos, an organization serving children in Curundu, a barrio suffering from crime and extreme poverty. “And so, many choose criminality.”
Experts, including police, agree that tackling violence needs an integrated approach that extends beyond law enforcement and involves institutions and organizations focused on health, education and creating alternatives to a life of crime.
As Major Cogley settles into his office for a 2 a.m. dinner break of fried chicken after leaving the scene where a teen has fallen to the ground from a bullet to his back, he says his biggest worry is the society his own kids must confront as they grow up. “What will become of Panama?”