The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) works to keep Americans safe at home by countering international crime, illegal drugs, and instability abroad. INL helps countries deliver justice and fairness by strengthening their police, courts, and corrections systems. These efforts reduce the amount of crime and illegal drugs reaching U.S. shores.
Transnational criminal organizations use Panama’s waters, lengthy coastlines, and densely forested border with Colombia to traffic people and illegal drugs from South America to Central America, and ultimately to the United States. Criminal organizations from around the world also take advantage of the massive volume of shipping containers through the Panama Canal to smuggle drugs and contraband, much of it headed to the United States. Criminal networks exploit Panama’s strategic location, dollarized economy, and favorable, inadequately enforced laws to launder proceeds of illegal activities via bulk cash smuggling, shell companies, and Panama’s free trade zones.
Panama and the United States are actively working to address these challenges. Panama is a committed partner with the United States in efforts to disrupt criminal trafficking operations and curb irregular migration destined for the United States. INL programs in Panama are consistent with security and governance priorities of the U.S. Strategy for Central America and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).
INL partners with Panama in programs aimed at detecting and dismantling illicit drug trafficking networks and reducing the movement of contraband and irregular migration through Panamanian territory. INL works with other U.S. agencies and Panamanian authorities to target criminals who seek to launder money through Panama’s banking sector and Free Trade Zones. INL also assists Panama’s efforts to improve security for its citizens, strengthen rule of law, and build the capacity of its criminal justice sector.
Border Control – INL supports the efforts of multiple Panamanian agencies to secure Panama’s borders. INL is a key partner to SENAFRONT, Panama’s national border police force and provides training and logistical support to help SENAFRONT secure the Darién province, bordering Colombia, against incursions from Colombia-based armed criminal and terrorist groups as well as the Panama-Costa Rican border to deter contraband, drug smuggling, and irregular migration. In 2019, SENAFRONT seized 3.8 metric tons of cocaine with INL support. INL partners with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to train SENAFRONT officers on biometric data collection, modernizing border controls, and improving interdiction practices.
Aviation Program – In 2019, INL transferred the titles of six U.S. Government helicopters to SENAN, Panama’s Air and Navy Service. INL’s aviation nationalization plan will establish a fully-operational Panamanian government helicopter capability operated, maintained, and administered by SENAN utilizing INL-donated helicopters, aircrews, maintenance, and logistics support personnel. INL supports SENAN in its missions to provide border security and deter and counter illicit activities. The program enables SENAN and SENAFRONT personnel to access remote areas of the Caribbean coast and the Darién province, a hub for illicit drug trafficking, irregular migration, and human smuggling.
Maritime Interdiction – Panama has 2,490 kilometers (1,547 miles) of coastline with nearly 500 rivers connecting the jungle and mountainous interior to the oceans. INL partners with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security to build Panama’s capacity to patrol its waterways to interdict narcotics, arrest and prosecute drug traffickers, and disrupt or dismantle transnational criminal organizations. In 2019, with INL assistance, Panama interdicted more drugs than the rest of Central America combined, seizing a record 91 metric tons of illicit narcotics.
Panamanian security forces seized a combined 21.8 metric tons of illicit narcotics from January to March 2020—a 42 percent increase over the same period in a record-breaking 2019. These efforts greatly reduced the transit of cocaine to the United States. In 2020, with support from INL-funded U.S. Coast Guard Support to Interdiction and Prosecution (SIP) advisors, Panama implemented a new standardized process to document maritime interdiction cases and present them for prosecution.
Financial Crimes – INL assistance increases the technical capacity of multiple Panamanian government agencies to monitor and detect illicit financial activity, investigate and prosecute financial crimes, and improve transparency in international and domestic financial transactions. In July 2020, Panama and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a new Anti-Money Laundering Task Force, supported by INL and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The Task Force consists of Panamanian prosecutors, law enforcement, and regulatory officials, who will be trained and advised by personnel from the FBI. The Task Force will target money laundering networks, including non-narcotics related networks, and strengthen capacity to investigate, disrupt, and prosecute money laundering and corruption. INL also partners with the United Kingdom to co-fund a UK Criminal Justice Advisor in Panama to help implement new regulatory and oversight processes, and increase the capacity of prosecutors to detect and prosecute financial crimes.
Law Enforcement/Security Leadership Development – With INL assistance, Panama’s National Police (PNP) reformed its police academy curriculum, enabling the academy to grant the equivalent of an associate’s degree for academy graduates. INL developed and donated advanced technology and software to the PNP, enabling real-time police data collection and analysis. The program was replicated in Costa Rica and is being improved for use by all of the security forces in Panama. INL is supporting Panama’s efforts to improve the management of its prisons.
Vetted Units – INL-supported vetted units augment Panama’s efforts to professionalize law enforcement institutions and create counterparts with which U.S. law enforcement can collaborate to conduct complex investigations involving narcotics trafficking and transnational crime. INL provides training, equipment, and operational support.
Justice Sector Reform – Panama transitioned to the accusatory justice system in 2016. INL assists Panama by institutionalizing best legal practices under the accusatory system. INL assisted the Judicial Academy to obtain Ministry of Education accreditation as a graduate level internationally accredited educational institution. INL supported Panama’s national Institute for
Legal Medicine and Forensic Science achieve international accreditation for its Controlled Substances, DNA, and Questioned Documents laboratories. INL and the Department of Justice’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) support the accreditation of the Ballistics lab and Crime Scene Investigation section, expected to take place in 2020. Along with Costa Rica, Panama stands as the only other country in Central America to boast international accredited forensic labs.