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Panama

Executive Summary

Panama is a multiparty constitutional democracy. In May 2019 voters chose Laurentino Cortizo Cohen as president in national elections that international and domestic observers considered generally free and fair.

The country has no military forces. The Panama National Police is principally responsible for internal law enforcement and public order, and the National Border Service handles border security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of security forces committed few abuses.

Significant human rights issues included restrictions on free expression and the press, including through censorship and criminal libel lawsuits.

The government has mechanisms to investigate and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses, but information on the process and results of investigations were rarely made public.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Impunity among security forces existed due to weak and decentralized internal control mechanisms for conduct and enforcement. The largest security force, the Panama National Police, has an internal affairs office, responsible for enforcing conduct violations, but it withdrew from past efforts to modernize. The government rarely made cases of police abuse or corruption public, and the National Criminal Statistics Directorate was unable to provide strong data on police internal affairs, making the extent of impunity difficult to gauge. National police authorities provided training and information to officers to discourage involvement with narcotics trafficking and corruption.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

While the law provides for an independent judiciary, the lack of criminal convictions on corruption charges supported widespread public opinion that the judicial system was susceptible to corrupt internal and external influence.

In a change from the previous year, most allegations of manipulation of the justice system related to the continuing influence of past regimes, notably those of the Ricardo Martinelli (2009-14) and Juan Carlos Varela (2014-19) administrations. While both former presidents were under separate investigations for a variety of corruption-related charges, including alleged money laundering and embezzlement, it was unclear to what extent loyalties to either former president influenced legal proceedings. Martinelli’s 2018 extradition from the United States to face illegal wiretapping charges resulted in an August 2019 “not guilty” finding, with evidence and testimony excluded on procedural grounds. Despite a Supreme Court panel rejection of several grounds for annulment of the decision, the case remained under appeal before a lower court.

In August the Penal Court of the Supreme Court of Justice refused to hear a request from victims of former president Martinelli asking for the annulment of his trial at a lower-level court, where three new judges found him not guilty of illegally wiretapping their telephones and chat conversations. Also in August the Supreme Court denied a prosecutor’s appeal of a 2019 decision by a three-judge panel that found Martinelli not guilty of any of the four criminal charges he faced. The court ruled, however, that a midlevel tribunal should see the request for appeal.

Unlike in accusatory system cases, court proceedings for cases in process under the inquisitorial system were not publicly available. As a result nonparties to the inquisitorial case proceedings did not have access to these proceedings until a verdict was reached. Under the inquisitorial system, judges could decide to hold private hearings and did so in high-profile cases. Consequently, the judiciary sometimes faced accusations, particularly in high-profile cases, of procedural irregularities. Since most of these cases had not reached conclusion, however, the records remained under seal. Interested parties generally did not face gag orders, but because of this mechanism, it was difficult to verify facts.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government generally respected this right, but journalists and media outlets noted an increase in criminal and civil libel and slander lawsuits, which they considered a threat to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Violence and Harassment: In January, National Assembly vice president Zulay Rodriguez sued journalist Mauricio Valenzuela, of the online media outlet Foco Panama, in a family court with charges of gender-based violence, infringing the rights of a minor, and attacking her personal liberty and integrity. Valenzuela had reported Rodriguez’ alleged involvement in a gold-trafficking case. Rodriguez requested a restraining order against Valenzuela and limitations on his use of technology and electronic devices against her. In February, Rodriguez alleged Valenzuela violated the restraining order, but a judge dismissed the case in July.

In October, National Assembly member Sergio Galvez publicly attacked the personal reputation of Radio Panama news anchor and political analyst Edwin Cabrera. While speaking on the floor of the assembly, Galvez accused Cabrera of having drinking problems and being a pedophile and questioned his sexual orientation. Since assembly members have immunity over what they say during their legislative sessions, Cabrera was unable to take legal action against Galvez.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes defamation, and penalties include fines, imprisonment, or both. In June a civil court ordered the seizure of Corprensa’s assets for 1.8 million balboas ($1.8 million). Corprensa was overdue on posting a financial bail for more than one million dollars for a 2012 libel and slander lawsuit brought by former president Perez-Balladares. Corprensa had been appealing the case for seven years. The National Council for Journalism called the ruling the result of a “failed state that violates the principles and fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution and international law.”

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation but due to the pandemic, the government issued several resolutions limiting movements nationwide and closing entries through airports, ports, and borders. Limitations included strict quarantine rules and long curfews. Government health authorities divided movement within communities based on gender. As COVID-19 spread, government movement restrictions unduly affected men–who were allowed to circulate only two days a week–while women were authorized to leave their homes three days a week. Movement within provinces was also forbidden unless the individual had a government-issued waiver. Local lawyers filed suits before the Supreme Court of Justice alleging the movement restrictions violated human rights. As of September the Supreme Court had not ruled on the complaints.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Panamanian National Office for Refugees (ONPAR) had a backlog of more than 15,000 cases and usually approved only 1 percent of asylum requests. ONPAR processed asylum applications and then referred applications to the National Commission for Refugees, an interagency committee that decides the final status of every case. The process of obtaining refugee status, which normally takes two to three years, allows only asylum seekers admitted into the process the right to work. The asylum application process could take up to one year for applicants just to be admitted into the system, which was not a guarantee of asylum approval. ONPAR, like many other government offices, was required to work remotely during the pandemic. Movement restrictions reduced the number of asylum requests received, but ONPAR continued to receive requests through virtual referrals from NGO partners such the Norwegian Refugee Council and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The government approved and implemented the protocol for identification, referral, and attention for minors requiring international protection; however, the institutional protocol for protecting minors who migrate was pending implementation approval.

The government continued to manage camps in the Darien region to provide food, shelter, and medical assistance to migrants. At least one camp in the region did not have regular access to potable water and at times presented unsanitary conditions, especially when dealing with high volumes of migrants. Because of the closure of international borders due to COVID-19 restrictions, migrants remained in temporary camps in Darien for more than six months, resulting in at least one violent protest in which migrants burned property and clashed with government officers. Authorities reported continued migrations of persons from Cuba, Haiti, South Asia, India, and Africa, nearly all whom entered by foot through the Darien Gap, a roadless expanse of jungle on the eastern border with Colombia.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its NGO implementing partners, thousands of persons in the country were possibly in need of international protection. These included persons in the refugee process, persons denied refugee status, and persons who did not apply for refugee status due to lack of knowledge or fear of deportation.

Employment: Refugees recognized by authorities have the right to work, but recognized refugees complained they faced discriminatory hiring practices. To prevent this discriminatory practice, ONPAR removed the word “refugee” from recognized refugees’ identification cards. By law individuals in the process of applying for asylum do not have the right to work; however, beginning in May those who had been formally admitted into the asylum process could request a one-year work permit that could be renewed as many times as needed.

Access to Basic Services: Education authorities sometimes denied refugees access to education and refused to issue diplomas to others if they could not present school records from their country of origin. The Ministry of Education continued to enforce the government’s 2015 decree requiring schools to accept students in the asylum process at the grade level commensurate with the applicants’ prior studies. As a result of the long wait times to be entered into the asylum system, many applicants encountered difficulties accessing basic services such as health care, financial services, and appropriate housing.

Durable Solutions: The law allows persons legally recognized as refugees or with asylum status who have lived in the country for more than three years to seek permanent residency.

g. Stateless Persons

The government continued to work with Colombia to recognize approximately 200 stateless persons on the border. The governments of Panama and Costa Rica, with the cooperation of UNHCR, used a mobile registry office on their common border to register indigenous Ngobe and Bugle seasonal workers who travelled between the two countries and whose births were not registered in either country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In May 2019 voters chose Laurentino Cortizo Cohen as president in national elections that independent observers considered generally free and fair. Elected at the same time were national legislators, mayors, local representatives, and council members. A group of international observers from the Organization of American States, the EU, electoral NGOs, regional electoral authorities, and the diplomatic corps considered the elections fair and transparent.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law requires new political parties to meet strict membership and organizational standards to gain official recognition and participate in national campaigns. Political parties must obtain the equivalent of 2 percent of the total votes cast to maintain legal standing. Six registered political parties and five movements filed their paperwork with the Electoral Tribunal in September to gain temporary recognition as political parties, including one led by former president Martinelli and the 2019 third runner-up, Ricardo Lombana (Movimiento Otro Camino, or Another Path Movement). The Electoral Tribunal confirmed recognition for Lombana’s party in January and for Martinelli’s party in September.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively. Corruption remained a serious problem in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches as well as in the security forces.

Corruption: The Public Ministry continued investigations into allegations of corruption against public officials, but the courts dismissed high-profile corruption cases due to “lack of evidence” or “procedural mistakes” by the prosecutors. In September the Supreme Court dismissed the Tonosi Irrigation millionaire embezzlement case against several 2009-14 administration authorities, including former president Martinelli.

Two former presidents, Ricardo Martinelli and Juan Carlos Varela, and two former ministers, Demetrio “Jimmy” Papadimitriu and Jaime Ford, were under investigation for corruption related to the Odebrecht case. Martinelli was also accused of using $43 million in public funds to purchase the pro-Martinelli Editora Panama America newspaper group.

There were also allegations of corruption by the sitting administration. Several high-profile scandals related to procurements to combat the coronavirus pandemic emerged during the year. In April and September, the Public Ministry opened separate investigations against central government institutions for allegedly overpaying for ventilators as well as purchasing used ventilators.

Corruption and a lack of accountability among police continued to be a problem. In July authorities filed weapons and weapons-trafficking charges against more than 25 individuals, most of whom were high-level security officials during the previous government. The charges involved the illegal distribution to the officials of legally imported weapons, some designated “weapons of war.” The Public Security Affairs Directorate, the office within the Security Ministry that regulates and licenses firearms, was associated with corruption in the past, and at least two former officer directors were facing charges, with one of them implicated in the July weapons-trafficking case.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires certain executive and judiciary officials to submit a financial disclosure statement to the Comptroller General’s Office. The information is not made public unless the executive or judiciary official explicitly gives permission.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, with prison terms of five to 10 years. Rapes continued to constitute the majority of sexual crimes investigated by the National Police Directorate of Judicial Investigation. In August the Supreme Court began a case against National Assembly member Arquesio Arias, a Guna Yala native, for sexual assault. Arias was a physician in his indigenous comarca (a legally designated semiautonomous area) and was denounced by several Guna Yala women for sexual misconduct and abuse. A second case was opened against Arias in September, again based on charges of sexual misconduct.

The law against gender violence stipulates stiff penalties for harassment, gender-based violence, and both physical and emotional abuse. The law states that sentencing for femicide is 25 to 30 years in prison. The law was not effectively enforced. Officials and civil society organizations agreed that domestic violence continued to be a serious crime.

As of October the Public Ministry had reported 12,540 new cases of domestic violence nationwide, including three attempts of femicide and 24 femicides, an increase of almost 50 percent in femicides from July 2019. The province of Colon and Ngobe-Bugle Comarca led the numbers with six femicides each, followed by San Miguelito Special District with five cases.

The Ombudsman’s Office continued its program Mujer Conoce tus Derechos (Woman, Know Your Rights), which began distributing pamphlets in supermarket chains located outside the province of Panama. The National Institute for Women’s Affairs continued to operate its 24/7 hotline to give legal guidance to victims of domestic violence. If the caller was at risk during the call, the operator would make a connection with the Specialized Unit for Domestic and Gender Violence within the police department.

Reported cases of domestic violence plummeted during the lockdown period following the president’s emergency declaration in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Some government officials credited the government’s “dry law,” which prohibited alcohol sales from March 25 through June 22, for a reduction in violence. Women’s rights organizations, however, considered closed government offices and limited access to the justice system as principal reasons for the reduction in reported cases.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in cases of employer-employee relations in the public and private sectors and in teacher-student relations but not between colleagues. Violators face a maximum three-year prison sentence. The extent of the problem was difficult to determine, because convictions for sexual harassment were rare, pre-employment sexual harassment was not actionable, and there was a lack of formal reports (only 15 cases had been reported as of August).

In August a female pilot at the National Aeronaval Service (SENAN) filed a criminal complaint for sexual harassment against her immediate supervisor. The Public Ministry opened an investigation and ordered SENAN authorities to transfer four individuals to different offices. In September the ombudsman made an unannounced visit to SENAN headquarters and discovered that the pilot in question experienced workplace harassment after she filed the criminal complaint. The man accused of the harassment was transferred to another department and given new duties, while the female accuser was stripped of all duties and relegated to sitting in a corner without a desk. Additionally, restrooms for women at SENAN remained locked due to the pending case. Women needed to obtain a key from a specific office to access their restrooms, while restrooms for men continued to be open at all times.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Some couples and individuals also had access to information about reproductive rights and the means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The law provides for medical professionals to perform abortions only if the fetus, the mother, or both are in danger, or, in some very limited cases, if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

Most women had access to skilled health-care providers during pregnancy and to free contraceptives through the Ministry of Health’s Health Promotion Department. Contraceptives were available at pharmacies without a prescription and minors did not need parental approval to use contraceptives of any type (oral, injections, IUD, or the emergency contraception pill).

The government provided sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, and women enjoyed the same legal status and rights as men, but the law was not enforced. For example, SENAN permitted female pilots to fly only as copilots, while male newcomers with less seniority were allowed to fly as principal pilots without restrictions. The law recognizes joint property in marriages. The law does not mandate equal pay for men and women in equivalent jobs. Some employers continued to request pregnancy tests, although it is an illegal hiring practice. The law puts restrictions on women working in jobs deemed hazardous.

Children

Birth Registration: The law provides citizenship for all persons born in the country, but parents of children born in remote areas sometimes had difficulty obtaining birth registration certificates.

Child Abuse: Child abuse is illegal. The law has several articles pertaining to child abuse and its penalties, which depend on the type of abuse and range from six months’ to 20 years’ imprisonment if the abuse falls under a crime that carries a higher penalty. Public Ministry statistics as of July reported that 2,887 children were victims of different types of abuse; the Public Ministry believed this figure was underreported. The Ministry of Social Development maintained a free hotline for children and adults to report child abuse and advertised it widely. The ministry provided funding to children’s shelters operated by NGOs.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. The government prohibits early marriage even with parental permission.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation, sale, and offering for prostitution of children, in addition to child pornography. Officials from the Ministry for Public Security prosecuted cases of sexual abuse of children, including within indigenous communities. Ministry officials believed commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred, including in tourist areas in Panama City and in beach communities, although they did not keep separate statistics. As of July only one case of child sexual tourism was reported.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Minority groups were generally integrated into mainstream society. Prejudice was directed, however, at recent legal immigrants, the Afro-Panamanian community, and indigenous Panamanians.

The Afro-Panamanian community was underrepresented in governmental positions and in political and economic power. Areas where they lived lagged in terms of government services and social investment. The government’s National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians (SENADAP) focused on the socioeconomic advancement of this community. In August the government appointed a new head of SENADAP, Krishna Camarena-Surgeon, a native of Colon, considered by observers to be well equipped to head an institution whose mission is to promote the rights and development of the Afro-Panamanian community.

The law prohibits discrimination in access to public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, and other privately owned establishments; no complaints were filed. Lighter-skinned individuals continued to be overrepresented in management positions and jobs that required dealing with the public, such as bank tellers and receptionists.

Indigenous People

The law affords indigenous persons the same political and legal rights as other citizens, protects their ethnic identity and native languages, and requires the government to provide bilingual literacy programs in indigenous communities. Indigenous individuals have the legal right to take part in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation and exploitation of natural resources. Nevertheless, they continued to be marginalized in mainstream society. Traditional community leaders governed comarcas for five of the country’s seven indigenous groups.

One of the groups faced internal governance problems, since it did not have legally elected authorities, and the pandemic prevented the elections scheduled for March. This complicated receiving and using government funds allotted to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The government unofficially recognized eight other traditional indigenous government authorities, on the basis that these eight regions were traditionally organized indigenous settlements and territories that were excluded from the constitution when the original comarcas were designated in 1938. All of these traditional government authorities are organized under a national coordinating body for indigenous affairs, the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples. In August the coordinating body requested a high-level meeting with government authorities to discuss discrimination against indigenous peoples during the government’s COVID-19 response. Issues discussed included the lack of culturally sensitive information during the government’s COVID-19 response, which caused the disease to spread unchecked for several months in many indigenous communities, and lack of communication between indigenous authorities and the government.

Government officials continued to meet with traditional organized authorities from the indigenous community, and many requested recognition of their land via collective titles. No collective land titles were granted during the year, however, and land conflicts continued to arise. Several Embera communities in Darien Province claimed that illegal settlers continued to enter their lands during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the nationwide movement restrictions, and that their complaints to the authorities were not being addressed. In November the Supreme Court of Justice ruled the Naso Comarca is constitutional; formal notification was pending to begin the legal process for its creation.

The Ngobe and Bugle peoples continued to oppose the Barro Blanco dam project, which became operational in 2017. There were no plans by the government to halt dam operations. The two groups and the government continued to negotiate details of the dam’s operation.

Although the law is the ultimate authority in indigenous comarcas, many indigenous peoples had not received sufficient information to understand their rights. Additionally, due to the inadequate educational system available in the comarcas, many indigenous peoples were unaware of or failed to use available legal channels.

Societal and employment discrimination against indigenous persons was widespread. Employers frequently denied indigenous workers basic rights provided by law, such as a minimum wage, social security benefits, termination pay, and job security. Laborers on the country’s agricultural plantations (the majority of whom were indigenous persons) continued to work in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The Ministry of Labor conducted limited oversight of working conditions in remote areas.

Access to health care continued to be a significant problem for indigenous communities, primarily due to poor infrastructure and culturally inadequate strategies implemented by health authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several members of the Guna Yala tribe died of COVID-19 because they refused treatment and transfer to medical facilities due to fear and lack of understanding of the disease as well as a lack of trust in modern medicine. In the early stages of the pandemic, local leaders refused health authorities entry into their communities for testing purposes. Deficiencies in the educational system deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic at all levels. Although the public school system reopened virtually in July, the comarcas typically had very limited access to internet and radio signals. These technological barriers prevented indigenous students from accessing educational opportunities.

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