The government maintained prosecution efforts. Article 456 of the penal code did not criminalize all forms of sex trafficking and labor trafficking because it required movement to constitute a trafficking offense. It prescribed penalties of 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment for trafficking offenses involving an adult victim and 20 to 30 years’ imprisonment for those involving a child victim or other aggravating circumstances; these penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Inconsistent with international law, the law established the use of force, fraud, or coercion as aggravating factors, rather than essential elements of the crime. The law defined trafficking broadly to include illegal adoption without the purpose of exploitation. The government charged some child sex traffickers with non-trafficking offenses, which carried lighter sentences. Article 180 criminalized “the prostitution of minors” with penalties of four to six years’ imprisonment and a fine of 5,200 balboas ($5,200). Article 186 criminalized purchasing commercial sex acts from a child and prescribed penalties of five to eight years’ imprisonment.
Authorities initiated five trafficking investigations (four for sex trafficking and one for labor trafficking) involving 12 suspects, compared with 32 trafficking investigations (25 for sex trafficking and seven for forced labor) involving 19 suspects in 2018, 18 trafficking investigations involving 17 suspects in 2017, and seven sex trafficking investigations involving 13 suspects in 2016. Officials reported six ongoing investigations from previous reporting periods. The government prosecuted 10 suspects for trafficking (six for sex trafficking and four for labor trafficking), compared with 12 in 2018 and 24 in 2017. Panama transitioned from the inquisitorial to adversarial system in 2016, which prosecutors report resulted in a higher than average number of cases brought to prosecution in 2017 due to backlogs. Seven accused traffickers awaited trial in prosecutions initiated prior to 2019. Authorities convicted 13 traffickers, all for sex trafficking, during the reporting period, compared with eight traffickers—seven sex traffickers and one labor trafficker—in 2018 and seven traffickers in 2017. These convictions stemmed from crimes committed in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The government sentenced traffickers to four to 25 years’ imprisonment, compared with four to 17 years’ imprisonment in 2018 and 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment in 2017. In one case, the courts absolved one of two accused traffickers but subsequently convicted on appeal, sentencing him to 15 years’ imprisonment. Observers reported that a lack of procedural guidelines for judges and prosecutors occasionally hindered successful convictions. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses. Government officials received training to discourage and prevent complicity in trafficking.
The government reported cooperating with multiple countries’ law enforcement on trafficking issues, including investigation and prosecution. Panamanian law enforcement collaborated with U.S. officials to arrest, prosecute, and convict a U.S. citizen sex trafficker who moved an underage Cambodian victim through Panama en route to the United States; officials in Panama identified the victim after a sailor reported trafficking indicators during the trafficker’s attempts to book passage for the victim on a Panamanian vessel. Panama and Colombia implemented collaborative measures under a memorandum of understanding, which included police cooperation and judicial information sharing. The government expanded training for law enforcement, including providing specialized training in trafficking investigations to National Police officers, and worked with the attorney general’s organized crime office to investigate cases. However, it did not reopen a dedicated anti-trafficking unit closed in a previous reporting period. The government funded and provided anti-trafficking training on victim care and case referral to the national police, and it used mock trials to familiarize prosecutors, police officers, judges, and magistrates with trafficking procedures. Other trainings targeted the national border service at the northern and southern borders. International partners provided access to online training modules and a trafficking expert for specialized trainings.