Panama

Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Tier 2

PANAMA: Tier 2

The Government of Panama does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore, Panama remained on Tier 2. The government demonstrated increasing efforts by identifying more trafficking victims and initiating more trafficking prosecutions than the previous reporting period, and funding anti-trafficking training for officials. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government did not allocate funding to its trafficking victim assistance fund, and the majority of identified victims did not receive services beyond an initial medical and psychological evaluation. There were no specialized shelters or services available for trafficking victims, with adult male or transgender victims most affected by this shortcoming. Resource and staffing constraints hampered the effectiveness of the national anti-trafficking commission.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PANAMA

Significantly increase funding for specialized victim services, including by allocating funds to the dedicated victim assistance fund and civil society organizations; use authorities under Law 79 to adopt a broader practical definition of trafficking that does not rely on evidence of movement, but rather focuses on exploitation; eliminate the disparity in penalties between the trafficking in persons law and statutes concerning commercial sexual exploitation of children, including sex trafficking crimes; assist victims to seek restitution; allow adult victims to leave shelters at will; intensify law enforcement efforts to proactively investigate and prosecute labor trafficking crimes and trafficking of children, including cases involving Panamanian victims exploited within the country; train law enforcement officials on conviction and sentencing of traffickers under the new accusatory justice system; institute standardized protocols on victim identification, referral procedures, and reporting data to the national commission; train officials—including police, border and immigration officials—on victim identification and referral procedures, especially among populations vulnerable to trafficking including labor trafficking and trafficking of children; develop and institutionalize government-provided anti-trafficking training for officials; make specialized services available to male victims; complete drafting the new action plan to begin in 2018 and allocate specific funds to the national commission to implement the plan; and amend the anti-trafficking law to adopt a definition of human trafficking consistent with the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

PROSECUTION

The government increased its anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. Law 79 of 2011 criminalizes all forms of trafficking, prescribing sentences from six to 30 years imprisonment, depending on the nature of the offense. These punishments are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. This law also defines human trafficking as moving adults for the purposes of prostitution (without requiring the use of force, fraud, or coercion) and illegal adoption (without requiring evidence of exploitation), which are not considered forms of human trafficking under the 2000 UN TIP Protocol. In September 2016, the government issued an Executive Decree approving the issuance of implementing regulations for Law 79, which provides guidance on implementation of the law on prosecution, protection and prevention, including on drafting a new action plan, policy and governance of the National Commission against Human Trafficking, and the creation of technical units for prosecution, protection and prevention activities. Other provisions prohibit various crimes related to child sex trafficking. Article 180 of the penal code criminalizes the “prostitution of minors” with penalties of four to six years imprisonment and a 5,200 balboas ($5,200) fine; these punishments are not sufficiently stringent and are not commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Article 186 penalizes, with five to eight years imprisonment, purchasers of commercial sex acts involving a child. In addition to Law 79, article 89 of Law 3 establishes financial penalties of 1,000-5,000 balboas ($1,000-$5,000) for employers who confiscate foreign workers’ identity documents.

During the reporting period, Panama completed its transition from the inquisitorial justice system to the accusatory justice system in all jurisdictions, which temporarily slowed down processing of trafficking cases. In 2016, with technical assistance from a foreign government, authorities initiated seven sex trafficking investigations involving 13 suspects—as compared to 17 sex trafficking investigations involving 38 suspects during the previous reporting period. The government prosecuted the 13 suspects under the trafficking law, compared with three prosecutions the previous reporting period and obtained convictions for two sex traffickers from pending prosecutions, compared to one the previous reporting period. The government sentenced one of the sex traffickers to 18 years in prison, which was the country’s longest sentence for trafficking to date; it sentenced the other to six years under the child sexual exploitation law. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses. The government continued to detain two suspected labor traffickers in a case from the previous reporting period, pending additional evidence. At least one sex trafficking investigation remained ongoing from the previous reporting period. The government identified five criminal organizations and a complex sex trafficking operation that exploited 52 men and women in a Panama City neighborhood. Although Law 79 does not define trafficking to require movement of the victim, Panamanian officials continued to investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases that did not involve the displacement of individuals, usually across borders, as other crimes, such as commercial sexual exploitation. For example, the government charged some child sex traffickers with child sexual exploitation, which carries lighter sentences.

The Panamanian National Police (PNP) had 28 officers with specialized training in trafficking investigations and worked with the Attorney General’s organized crime office to investigate trafficking cases. During the reporting period, the sex crimes unit of the PNP established a sub-unit dedicated to trafficking crimes. Panamanian authorities cooperated with Central and South American countries on seven sex trafficking operations, including requesting INTERPOL Red Notices on suspects wanted by Panamanian authorities. The government increased training on human trafficking for officials, utilizing a train-the-trainer model that reached more than two-dozen officials from eight ministries.

PROTECTION

The government increased protection efforts, but it did not identify labor trafficking victims and victim services remained inadequate. The government identified 84 suspected adult sex trafficking victims—82 foreigners and two Panamanians—a significant increase from 56 victims identified the previous reporting period. Of these victims, 51 were women and 33 were transgender individuals reported as men. In nearly all cases, traffickers exploited victims in illegal brothels run out of apartment buildings and were often involved in organized criminal networks. Traffickers often promised victims from Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic high wages to work in various industries in Panama; upon arrival traffickers paid victims very little and subjected them to sex trafficking and debt bondage, by requiring them to pay back loans taken to cover transport, housing, food and clothing at exorbitant interest rates. Officials referred all victims to the Technical Unit for Attention and Protection of Victims and Witnesses (UPAVIT), which provides assistance and protection to victims, witnesses and experts, for psycho-social treatment, but the government did not provide or fund trafficking-specific shelters or services. Authorities placed a small number of victims in a government facility for female victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Officials did not permit victims to leave the shelter unescorted, reportedly due to safety concerns, and such departures were limited to official purposes, such as to assist with law enforcement investigations. Such strictures could re-traumatize victims and prevent victims from reintegrating and earning income. For this reason, many victims chose to return to their home countries or reside with family or friends rather than stay in the shelter, potentially inhibiting victim-witness support in pending trafficking cases. Authorities used government funds to house victims at hotels for several days when the number of victims strained the capacity of the shelters.

The government did not dedicate funds for anti-trafficking efforts and did not allocate sufficient resources for victim care. The government uses specially designed interview rooms that separate trafficking victims from the court room, allowing them to provide testimony privately in order to minimize the risk of re-victimization during the judicial process. In 2016, the government transferred to the Ministry of Public Security land outside the capital for construction of a shelter dedicated to trafficking victims, but did not begin construction or secure funding for the shelter’s operation and maintenance. There were no government shelters or NGO shelters available for adult male or transgender victims, although the government placed some male victims in hotels for short-term shelter. Specialized services remained lacking for all trafficking victims. The government provided neither long-term services nor permanent residency to any trafficking victims. Due to the lack of shelters and victim services, many victims requested repatriation, which limited the provision of follow-up assistance.

The UPAVIT units implemented protocols to protect victims during the judicial process. However, the government did not have systematic procedures to proactively identify victims among some vulnerable populations, such as people in prostitution and undocumented migrants in detention. The government did not implement guidelines for victim identification and protection developed by an international organization, although the recent regulations for the trafficking law included a provision for the implementation of these guidelines. Panamanian authorities encouraged, but did not require, victims to participate in the legal process; no victims assisted in the legal process during the reporting period. While victims could file civil suits against traffickers, no victim had ever done so. The government did not fully implement a 2013 law mandating any seized assets derived from human trafficking activities be allocated to services for trafficking victims, although it began efforts to do so through seized bank accounts. Panamanian law provides short-term alternatives to the removal of foreign victims to countries where they might face hardship or retribution, including provisional residency for between three and 12 months; the government provided temporary housing to one foreign victim, although she returned home shortly after. While there were no reports of victims penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking, insufficient efforts to screen for indicators of trafficking may have led to some victims being penalized.

PREVENTION

The government maintained prevention efforts. Government ministries continued to implement the 2012-2017 anti-trafficking national action plan; the September 2016 regulations for the trafficking law include a provision for drafting a new action plan, which the government had not begun. The national commission against human trafficking met at the director level one time and at the technical level twice during the reporting period, but lacked funding and dedicated staff, which hampered its overall effectiveness. Interagency coordination remained weak, due in large part to the lack of standardized protocols for conducting and reporting activities across agencies. Panama assumed the presidency of the regional coalition against human trafficking and smuggling and helped to coordinate regional anti-trafficking activities. The government worked with an international organization to update the multilateral Protocol for International Information Exchange at Border Areas, an information exchange mechanism for authorities in the region to share information on cases, to include trafficking information. Individual government institutions and international organizations used their own funds to conduct anti-trafficking activities. Several government ministries conducted awareness-raising events, primarily in conjunction with the government’s anti-trafficking awareness month and with support from an international organization. Events included radio programs, concerts, marches, and press conferences to promote reporting of commercial sex trafficking by citizens; the government also targeted efforts toward the hospitality industry. The government made no new efforts to reduce the demand for forced labor and commercial sex acts. In response to a surge in irregular, undocumented migrants arriving from Colombia, officials used biometric information and data sharing to attempt to identify and document migrants. There were no reports of child sex tourism during the reporting period, but the Panamanian Commission against Sexual Exploitation Crimes continued its campaign against the sexual exploitation of minors—including child sex trafficking—in collaboration with tourism authorities. The government provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.

TRAFFICKING PROFILE

As reported over the past five years, Panama is a source, transit, and destination country for men and women subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Child victims of trafficking are typically Panamanian nationals subjected to commercial sex acts inside Panama. Panamanian women are subjected to sex trafficking in other countries, including The Bahamas and Guyana. In Panama, most identified trafficking victims are foreign adults exploited in sex trafficking, especially women from Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In 2016, the number of foreign transgender victims subjected to sex trafficking increased. Transgender individuals are discriminated against in Panama, making them more vulnerable to trafficking, especially given the high demand in Panama for sexual services from this population. Traffickers recruit female victims with promises of good jobs and high salaries in the housekeeping and restaurant industries, as well as for modeling and prostitution, but exploit them in sex trafficking or, to a lesser extent, domestic servitude. Nicaraguan and, to a lesser extent, Colombian, Venezuelan, and Chinese men are subjected to labor trafficking in construction, agriculture, mining, and other sectors; most labor trafficking victims come from Nicaragua via bus and enter Panama from Costa Rica. Colombian refugees are also vulnerable to trafficking due to their lack of knowledge of the refugee process and irregular status. In recent years, men and women from China have been subjected to debt bondage in supermarkets, laundries, and other small businesses operated by Chinese citizens; traffickers have subjected Colombian men to forced labor in restaurants; an international organization has identified cases of debt bondage among Indian men in door-to-door peddling; and authorities have identified potential sex trafficking victims among Eastern European women working in nightclubs. Men from the United States have been investigated as child sex tourists in Panama. Panamanian and European officials report some men and women from Central America who transit Panama en route to the Caribbean or Europe are subjected to sex or labor trafficking in their destination countries.

Traffickers often charge foreign victims exorbitant travel and lodging fees to keep them in debt bondage, often restricting victims’ movement until they pay off such debts. Victims report traffickers threaten to harm family members in their countries of origin if they do not comply. Traffickers increasingly exploit sex trafficking victims in private residences, as opposed to brothels or bars, and recruit victims through websites, which makes such offenses harder to detect. Traffickers from Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Venezuela, and Panama operated in Panama during the reporting period. In previous years, government officials reported more traffickers created legal businesses as facades to mask their income from trafficking. In addition, reports indicated that identified traffickers had links to international organized criminal groups. In a change from previous years, police reported that victims were forced to consume illegal drugs by their traffickers as a coercive measure.