Panama remains a major transshipment crossroads for illicit drug trafficking due to its location and logistics infrastructure. The United States estimated that approximately 90 percent of the cocaine trafficked to the United States during the first six months of 2015 first transited through the Mexico/Central America corridor. Panama does not produce significant amounts of drugs destined for the U.S. market, although limited cannabis cultivation occurs in remote regions for local consumption. Transnational drug trafficking organizations, including Mexican and Colombian groups, move illegal contraband through Panama’s remote Darién region and along its coastline and littoral zones. Drug traffickers exploit Panama’s transportation infrastructure, including the second largest free trade zone in the world, four major container seaports, airports, and the Pan-American Highway. The Panamanian government is concerned that drug consumption may be growing within the country, and is committed to working with international partners to confront drug use and trafficking both domestically and regionally. The United States enjoys strong partnerships with all Panamanian security services.
B. Drug Control Accomplishments, Policies, and Trends
1. Institutional Developments
In 2015, Panama built on past efforts to improve its security institutions, enhance interdiction capacity, and ensure citizen security. Under the administration of President Juan Carlos Varela, the Ministry of Public Security’s budget increased in 2015 for the seventh consecutive year. The major challenges to host-government policies and institutions include managing interagency and inter-service cooperation to combat illicit trafficking. The Panamanian National Police (PNP), with U.S. assistance, continued to implement modern policing strategies and integration of the COMPSTAT (comparative statistics) model, allowing real-time mapping and analysis of criminal activity. Increasingly effective use of COMPSTAT led to more-effective police enforcement in 2015, with a decrease in major crimes in zones where the PNP fully implemented the model, according to government statistics. Additional reforms continued at the Police Academy, which the Ministry of Education certified as an accredited academic institution and now offers eight college-level degrees to new PNP members. The Academy has increased its focus on distance learning, continuing education, and seminar programs to serve the entire force.
In 2010, the PNP created a specific anti-drug unit, and the maritime (or coastal) Anti-Narcotics Operations Tactical Unit (Unidad Táctica de Operaciones Antinarcóticas), which continues as an effective interdiction organization. The PNP continues to endorse a vetted Sensitive Investigative Unit supported by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The Government of Panama continues to devote resources to improving security in the Darién province, where the National Border Service (SENAFRONT) remains the operational mainstay in the region, performing humanitarian assistance and community policing missions alongside its normal duties. Although the FARC no longer operates with impunity in the Darién, SENAFRONT confronts criminal gangs moving drug shipments through the jungles. Through the Regional Border Protection Training Program, the United States provides training to SENAFRONT and other regional security services on border security operations at and between ports of entry. Thanks to “train-the-trainer” cooperation with the United States and Colombia, SENAFRONT now conducts various levels of training on its own and provides such training to increasing numbers of students from regional partners, including Costa Rica, Belize, and Honduras.
With U.S. assistance, Panama’s Air and Naval Service (SENAN) continued to address shortcomings hindering its operational effectiveness in 2015. Many problems persist, including poor logistics and maintenance systems, inadequate human resources, a deficit of maritime mid-grade and senior officers, insufficient intelligence collection capability, and limited support and operational intercept assets. The United States works jointly with the Colombian Navy to help SENAN develop organic and sustainable maintenance and operational capacities. While resourcing for additional training, equipment, and personnel is improving, the development of a professional cadre will take years.
Panamanian authorities continued their phased transition from an inquisitorial justice system to a faster and more transparent adversarial justice system, which the United States supports through training. Panama has implemented the system in eight of ten provinces. In the provinces where it is implemented, case processing times were reduced, though the government will need to commit additional resources as the system is implemented in the two remaining provinces of Colon and Panama City, which are the most heavily populated and have the most crime. Despite this measure of progress, justice sector institutions have difficulty pursuing money laundering, complex financial crimes, and criminal forfeiture cases and remain susceptible to corruption.
A mutual legal assistance treaty and an extradition treaty are in force between the United States and Panama. Although the Panamanian Constitution does not allow extradition of Panamanian nationals, Panama will prosecute those fugitives in Panama in lieu of extradition. The United States and Panama signed the Supplementary Arrangement on U.S. Coast Guard Assistance, known as the Salas-Becker Agreement, in 2002, enabling cooperation on bilateral maritime interdiction, including the use of shipriders allowing Panamanian security officers to deploy aboard U.S. air and maritime patrol assets, and an international maritime interdiction support provision, which enables the transfer of third-party national detainees and a representative sample of contraband through Panama to an awaiting U.S. aircraft for further transfer to the United States to face criminal prosecution. The program enhanced the effectiveness of counter-trafficking operations in and around Panama by improving detection, monitoring, interdiction, and apprehension of traffickers.
2. Supply Reduction
Panama reported seizing 52.3 metric tons (MT) of cocaine in 2015, largely in cooperation with U.S. law enforcement. This includes cocaine captured by Panamanian authorities but does not include cocaine seized by U.S. Coast Guard assets in or near Panamanian territorial waters or cocaine jettisoned by traffickers under pursuit and not recovered. The volume of seized cocaine increased significantly from 2014 (35.1 MT in total), reflecting the increasing ability of Panama’s security services to act on operational intelligence. Panama continued to enjoy a high pursuit-to-interdiction ratio of 86 percent (January - September 2015), capturing 59 of the 69 maritime targets that were chased. Additionally, Panamanian authorities seized 2.5 MT of cannabis, 20.1 kilograms of heroin, and $7,422,475 in drug-related cash, up from $2.35 million over the same period in 2014.
Several local drug trafficking organizations in Panama continued to provide logistical support to international trafficking networks smuggling cocaine into Panama for further distribution northward in Central America. Based along both of Panama's coastlines, these organizations coordinate the receipt of “go-fast” vessels from several organizations in Colombia. Once in Panama, these vessels are re-fueled and the drugs stored in remote locations along the coastlines for subsequent transport further north.
The Government of Panama has not reported significant problems associated with synthetic drugs.
3. Public Information, Prevention, and Treatment
Although illicit drug abuse currently is not a major problem in the country, the government is concerned it could become so, in concert with the growth of gangs influenced by problems from northern Central America. Panama funds a number of drug demand reduction programs and benefits from other funding sources, including donations from civil society groups and international cooperation. The Ministry of Education provides drug prevention programs in schools and the Ministry of Health supports a drug-counseling program. Panama conducted its last drug-demand study in 2008, making it difficult to assess current trends. Panama has not updated its written strategy on drug demand reduction since 2007. The United States, in collaboration with the Organization of the America States’ Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, funds drug treatment and prevention training for treatment service professionals in Panama.
The Government of Panama is attempting to implement a whole-of-government approach to combatting crime that includes prevention and demand reduction programs. The United States partnered with the PNP to implement programs such as Drug Awareness and Resistance Education and the Community Policing Strategy to help at-risk youth.
Corruption remains a concern throughout the security services, customs, and justice sector. Drug trafficking organizations have penetrated the security services, and Panamanian authorities detained several security-service members involved in trafficking in 2015. The Government of Panama recognizes this issue, and the PNP and SENAN are favorable to U.S. requests to polygraph security service members. The government actively investigates and prosecutes officials for corruption. Most corruption charges are non-trafficking related, instead focusing on allegations of personal enrichment through government funds or contracts, including a Supreme Court justice who pled guilty to non-narcotics-related charges in February. However, Panama did not adjudicate any significant cases of corruption within the security services in 2015, in part due to poor investigative capacity, a lengthy investigative process, and a weak judicial system.
As a matter of government policy, Panama does not encourage or facilitate illegal activity associated with drug trafficking or have senior government officials engaged in such activity.
C. National Goals, Bilateral Cooperation, and U.S. Policy Initiatives
The United States supports citizen security, law enforcement, and rule-of-law programs in Panama, mainly through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). These programs aim to expand Panamanian capabilities to interdict, investigate, and prosecute illegal drug trafficking, money laundering, and other transnational crimes while strengthening Panama’s justice sector. Through CARSI, the United States trains and equips Panamanian police to perform anti-gang law enforcement. The United States also supports community policing in Panama with equipment, training, and communications assets.
In 2015 the United States continued to provide assistance to modernize and maintain SENAN, SENAFRONT, and PNP vessels and facilities in support of interdiction efforts. U.S.-provided aviation assets have helped SENAN expand its ability to support joint drug enforcement operations, including interdiction and detection of suspect aircraft. U.S.-provided training helps to improve the professionalism and effectiveness of Panama’s security services by enhancing skills in areas such as small boat operations, small unit tactics, maritime interdiction, equipment, and logistics support. The United States continues to advance progress through a trilateral cooperation relationship with Panama and Colombia, where Colombian law enforcement, justice sector, and military experts train members of Panama’s security services.
U.S. and Panamanian law enforcement units collaborate closely on drug control efforts, which in 2015 included high-profile investigations involving a nexus to U.S. cases. Panamanian vetted units, working in partnership with U.S. law enforcement agencies, conducted sensitive investigations, and operations related to counternarcotics, money laundering, human smuggling, and other transnational crimes. During 2015, U.S. law enforcement leads led Panamanian authorities to the seizure of more than $2.5 million. In another case, a DEA-supported Panamanian vetted unit dismantled an international drug trafficking organization responsible for multi-ton cocaine shipments and indicted 25 members of the organization, including six corrupt Panama law enforcement officials with drug trafficking charges tied to over seven tons of cocaine seized in Panama since 2010.
The Government of Panama continued its support for joint counternarcotics operations and investigations in 2015, while continuing to invest in building its own capacity. Panama remains one of the regional leaders in narcotics interdiction and seizures, and President Varela has stated a desire to increase that regional leadership. Nevertheless, the overall magnitude of the drug threat exceeds the capacity of Panama’s security services to manage alone. To maintain the momentum of improvements, the United States will continue to assist Panama in implementing reforms to ensure that PNP, SENAFRONT, and SENAN become strong, professional security services and that Panama’s justice sector can capably overcome the corrosive effects of transnational crime. The United States continues to work positively with all the security services and encourages stronger and more organized support by the prosecutorial sector to ensure the Government of Panama can follow through on the difficult task of removing the corrosive effects of illicit drugs from their country.