Panama is a major logistics and transshipment point for both legal and illegal products due to its proximity to Colombia and other drug producing countries. In addition to rising drug trafficking through Panama by Colombian, Mexican, and other drug trafficking organizations, the presence of Colombian illegal armed groups is contributing to rising crime, violence, and gang presence throughout the country. Traffickers utilize Panama’s coastline to move drugs, supplies, and other illicit products between land and water to evade law enforcement. The country’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 region near the Colombian border, the Azuero peninsula, the porous border with Costa Rica, and the sparsely populated Caribbean coastal areas. In the last two years, the security situation has 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.
The United States Government 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.
U.S. Government-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, the Government of Panama continued to staff the U.S.-funded Guabala checkpoint on the Pan-American Highway. The Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs’ (INL) Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection 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.