2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Released
Tuesday, March 02 2010 @ 05:56 PM EST
Contributed by: Don Winner
- I. Summary
- Panama is a major logistics and transshipment point for both legal and illegal products due to its geographic position and well-developed maritime and transportation infrastructure. In addition to rising drug trafficking through Panama by Colombian, Mexican, and other drug trafficking organizations, the presence of Colombian illegal armed groups in the Darien region of Panama is contributing to rising crime, violence, and gang presence throughout the country. The newly elected Martinelli Administration has continued Panama’s history of strong cooperation with the U.S. on counternarcotics operations. United States Government (USG) support to Panama’s counternarcotics efforts, including developing an effective community policing model to help control a growing gang problem, is crucial to help Panama stem its increasing security problems. Panama is a party to the 1988 UN Drug Convention. (more)
II. Status of Country - Due to its close proximity to Colombia and other drug producing countries, Panama receives a significant quantity of South American cocaine and heroin destined for the U.S. and other global markets. With increased counternarcotics efforts in Mexico, drug traffickers are increasing drug transshipment routes through Central America. Traffickers utilize Panama’s coastline to move drugs, supplies, and other illicit products between land and water to evade law enforcement. Panama’s infrastructure, including four major containerized seaports, the Pan-American Highway, and the rapidly growing Tocumen international airport facilitate drug movement. Smuggling of weapons and drugs continues to take place, particularly along the Pacific Coast of the Darien region near the Colombian border, the Azuero peninsula, the porous border with Costa Rica, and the sparsely populated Caribbean coastal areas. The flow of illicit drugs has contributed to increasing crime, drug abuse, and gang violence in Panama. Panama has traditionally been one of the safest countries in Central America, with lower crime rates than Costa Rica. However, in the last two years the security situation dramatically shifted in Panama. The murder rate climbed from 11.1 homicides per 100,000 persons in 2006 to a projected 23.2 per 100,000 in 2009. Panamanian authorities attribute the deteriorating security situation in large part to the increase in narcotics trafficking. Panama is not a significant producer of drugs or precursor chemicals. Limited amounts of cannabis are cultivated for local consumption.
III. Country Actions Against Drugs in 2009 - Policy Initiatives. The Martinelli Administration cooperates extensively with the United States to fight crime and narcotics trafficking. Planning for the switch of criminal systems pursuant to the 2008 law reforming the criminal system from a written (inquisitorial) system to a largely oral (accusatorial) system continued throughout 2009. Implementation is not expected to begin until 2011. The 2008 merger of the National Air Service (SAN) and the National Maritime Service (SMN) into a unified “Coast Guard”-type service called the National Aero-Naval Service (SENAN) increased the Government of Panama’s (GOP) maritime interdiction capacity, due in large measure to SENAN’s strong leadership. The GOP also separated the frontier police from the PNP, creating SENAFRONT as an independent entity. Over the past year, SENAFRONT established itself as a relatively effective border security force and took steps to increase the GOP’s presence in the remote border region of the Darien. For the third straight year, Panama carried out a successful table-top exercise (Panamax Alpha) to address asymmetrical threats to the Panama Canal.
Accomplishments. Panama reported seizing over 54 metric tons of drugs in 2009, including 52.4 metric tons of cocaine and 1.8 metric tons of marijuana, according to seizure data from the Panamanian Drug Prosecutors Office. The data includes cocaine captured by GOP forces, but does not include cocaine interdicted by U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) assets in Panamanian waters or cocaine jettisoned by traffickers to avoid prosecution. Police also seized over $11 million in cash linked to drug trafficking, 90 kilograms of heroin, and made 1,157 narcotics-related arrests.
Law Enforcement Efforts. SENAN cooperates with USCG requests for ship registry data and provides officers to serve aboard U.S. maritime assets as “ship riders,” which expanded the effectiveness of these assets. In addition to granting permission for U.S. maritime assets to operate in Panamanian territorial waters, SENAN provides excellent support for counternarcotics operations within its limited means, including patrolling and photographing suspect areas, and identifying suspect aircraft. The U.S. provided equipment and support to personnel for GOP vetted units. These units conduct sensitive investigations and operations related to counternarcotics, money laundering, human smuggling, and other transnational crimes. In 2009, the GOP continued to staff the U.S.-funded Guabala checkpoint on the Pan-American Highway. The Department of State Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs’ (INL) Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) supported this effort by providing temporary duty U.S. Border Patrol Agents to conduct training and mentoring of Panamanian law enforcement personnel. The national police also deployed a NAS-supported mobile inspection unit that manned road blocks throughout the country, targeting the land-based movement of drugs.
Corruption. The GOP does not, as a matter of government policy, encourage or facilitate illicit drug production or distribution, nor is it involved in laundering the proceeds of the sale of illicit drugs. Several government ministries have transparent, automated procedures to minimize opportunities for corruption (e.g., for registering a business, or preparing a shipment for export), but public corruption remains a concern. Despite the GOP’s public stance against corruption, few cases have been adjudicated due largely to a lack of investigative capacity and a weak judicial system.
Agreements and Treaties. Panama is a party to the 1988 UN Drug Convention, the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs, as amended by the 1972 Protocol, and the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances. A mutual legal assistance treaty and an extradition treaty are in force between the U.S. and Panama, although the Constitution does not permit extradition of Panamanian nationals. In 2002, the U.S. Government (USG) and GOP concluded a comprehensive maritime interdiction agreement. Panama has bilateral agreements on counternarcotics with the United Kingdom, Colombia, Mexico, Cuba, and Peru. Panama is a party to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its three protocols and to the UN Convention against Corruption. Panama is a member of the Organization of American States (OAS) and is a party to the Inter-American Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters, the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption, the Inter-American Convention of Extradition, the Inter-American Convention against Terrorism, and the Inter-American Convention against the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms. Panama is an active participant in the U.S.-SICA (Integrated System for Central America) security dialogue.
Cultivation and Production. Limited cannabis cultivation, principally for domestic consumption, is grown in Panama, particularly in the Pearl Islands.
Drug Flow/Transit. Panama is a major logistics and transshipment point for both legal and illegal products due to its geographic position and well-developed maritime and transportation infrastructure. Drug traffickers move South American drugs along Panama’s relatively unguarded Pacific and Atlantic coastlines via fishing vessels, cargo ships, and go-fast boats. According to the latest USG estimates, 91 percent of the cocaine directed towards the U.S. transits the Mexico/Central America corridor. Panama’s coastlines and rivers are used by drug traffickers to store drugs, fuel, and supplies for go-fast boats. These boats carry drug shipments towards the U.S. Drugs are also moved by air, with aircraft utilizing hundreds of abandoned or unmonitored legal airstrips in Panama for refueling, pickups, and deliveries. In 2009, the GOP reported an increase in seizures on the Pan American Highway, indicating that traffickers are increasingly using ground transportation methods in conjunction with transporting narcotics by air and sea. Panama has developed into a regional commercial air transportation hub, and drug couriers continue to use commercial air flights transiting or originating in Panama to move cocaine and heroin to the U.S. and Europe.
Domestic Programs/Demand Reduction. Public concern over Panama’s growing drug consumption problem sparked increasing internal debate on the need to improve domestic drug prevention and awareness efforts. The U.S. partners with local actors to implement such programs as Drug Awareness and Resistance Education (DARE), Youth Crime Watch, Young People Building a Better World, and the Integral Prevention Education Program. As part of the Mérida Initiative, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also partners with the GOP, civil society, and the private sector to provide alternatives to narcotics use and gang membership to disadvantaged youth. This crime prevention and antigang program led to a proposal to develop a new government-wide working group to coordinate all GOP activities dealing with at-risk youth. This working group, expected to be formed in spring 2010, is intended to bring together approximately 45 at-risk youth programs spread among 20 GOP agencies and to facilitate assistance from donors, NGOs and corporations, including potential continuation funding from the USG.
IV. U.S. Policy Initiatives and Programs - Policy Initiatives. USG-supported programs focus on improving Panama’s ability to intercept, investigate, and prosecute illegal drug trafficking and other transnational crimes; strengthening Panama’s judicial system; improving Panama’s border security; and promoting strict enforcement of existing laws. In 2009, NAS, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC), and USCG provided resources for modernization and upkeep of SENAN, SENAFRONT, and PNP vessels and bases, and assisted SENAN with training personnel and maintaining key aircraft for interdiction efforts. Over the past year, the USG provided training, operational equipment and support to the multiagency Tocumen Airport Drug Interdiction Law Enforcement Team. NAS coordinated training for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) vetted units, as well as continued training for the quick response motorcycle team (“lynx” unit) in Tactical Law Enforcement procedures, internal affairs, Anti-Corruption investigations, and crowd control procedures.
In 2009, NAS and CBP continued support for operational evaluation teams of U.S. Border Patrol Agents who work in the border areas with SENAFRONT. NAS also continued support for a major law enforcement modernization project with the PNP to develop its police leadership and implement community-based policing procedures. The program aims to improve community policing tactics, expand existing crime analysis technology, and promote managerial change to allow greater autonomy and accountability. In 2009, this program exposed the PNP leadership to the concepts of Community Policing. Due to the program’s success, the PNP has incorporated the training concepts into the curriculum of its three training academies. NAS continues to provide material and training support to increase the effectiveness of the GOP’s counternarcotics effort.
Bilateral Cooperation. In 2009, the GOP continued to sustain joint counternarcotics efforts with U.S. entities, such as DEA and USCG, and worked to strengthen national law enforcement institutions with assistance from NAS. The DEA vetted unit continues to lead the region’s vetted units in cocaine seizures. The NAS-funded ICE vetted unit doubled in size in 2009, and became a major asset for the PNP. This unit led several high-profile investigations and operations involving crimes with a nexus to the U.S. In 2009, Panama and the USG also coordinated to launch a Panamanian Trade Transparency Unit (TTU) in early 2010. The TTU will enhance information sharing for combating trade-based money laundering activities. Maritime cooperation improved in 2009. At U.S. urging, SENAN, SENFRONT, and the PNP formed a Joint Task Force (JTF) to increase the GOP’s ability to leverage the entities’ varied skills to combat drug trafficking when deployed to strategic locations in Panama. The JTF was created at the close of 2009, but plans are in process to establish a base of operations on Panama’s Pacific Coast near the border with Colombia to work in conjunction with U.S. maritime assets to deny use of Panama’s Pacific littorals waters to traffickers. In 2009, the USG and Panama cooperated to execute 18 cases under the provisions of the maritime counternarcotics bilateral agreement, which resulted in the removal of over 7.5 metric tons of cocaine, arrest of 76 smugglers, and seizure of 12 vessels.
The Road Ahead. When considering the movement of narcotics from South America to the U.S., Panama is the “mouth of the funnel.” Drug loads are found in large quantities, providing U.S. investment in counternarcotics efforts an immense “bang for the buck” effect against drug traffickers. Panama has a long tradition of close cooperation with the United States, as illustrated by Panama routinely reporting the highest cocaine seizure rates in Central America, but increased narcotics trafficking and associated violence is eroding public confidence in government institutions. Rising insecurity, increased narcotics related crime, and the increased presence of Mexican and Colombian trafficking organizations threaten to undermine Panama’s democratic institutions. The new Panamanian administration has allocated more resources to its security organizations, and has made some needed changes, such as increasing police salaries, but Panama’s justice and security organs remain weak and susceptible to the corrupting influences of drug trafficking organizations. The U.S. encourages Panama to devote even more resources to the modernization of its security services and to continue with reform efforts that improve public sector accountability and transparency. The GOP is also encouraged to continue enhancing its efforts to prevent, detect, investigate, and prosecute financial crimes and money laundering. Panama’s ability to safeguard its citizens, confront drug traffickers, and ensure that law enforcement efforts are anchored in democracy will be strengthened by its continued focus on law enforcement modernization, improved equipment, strategic planning, decentralization of decision making, and community-oriented policing philosophies.