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Panama (Tier 2)

The Government of Panama does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Panama remained on Tier 2. These efforts included identifying more victims; convicting and stringently penalizing two traffickers under the anti-trafficking statute; seeking survivor input in victim protection efforts; supporting victims’ right to restitution from their traffickers; undertaking a cumulative review of its own anti-trafficking efforts; and providing additional food and hygiene support to trafficking victims during the pandemic. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. Authorities investigated fewer traffickers, and, despite proactive screening efforts, government statistics indicated most trafficking victims self-reported their exploitation. The government did not amend the anti-trafficking law to remove the requirement of movement to constitute a trafficking crime, which perpetuated misconceptions about trafficking and conditioned the government’s anti-trafficking efforts, such that law enforcement inadequately investigated internal trafficking cases and plausibly mis- or under-identified internal trafficking victims.

  • Remove the requirement of movement from the statutory definition of trafficking in persons under the criminal code.
  • Proactively identify trafficking victims, including among Panamanians exploited within the country, migrants, Indigenous communities, domestic workers, and other vulnerable groups.
  • Vigorously investigate and prosecute, and, as appropriate, convict traffickers, including those involved in child sex tourism.
  • Amend the anti-trafficking law to include force, fraud, or coercion as essential elements of the crime rather than aggravating factors.
  • Allocate dedicated funding for specialized victim services, including through the special fund for trafficking victims and monetary support for civil society organizations.
  • Train law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and prosecute traffickers using the trafficking offense rather than a lesser offense.
  • Establish and fund a specialized trafficking shelter. Increase training for government officials in victim identification and referral, including proactive screening of vulnerable populations and individuals in commercial sex.
  • Sentence convicted traffickers to adequate penalties consistent with the law, which should involve significant prison terms.
  • Inform foreign victims of their rights as trafficking victims, including access to temporary residency permits and services.
  • Develop and disseminate a procedural manual to guide prosecutors and judges in trafficking cases.
  • Train judges to understand the importance of financial restitution in trafficking cases.
  • Use existing laws and regulations to revoke the licenses of fraudulent recruiters.

The government slightly decreased 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, inconsistent with international law. The government charged some sex traffickers with non-trafficking offenses, which carried lighter sentences. Article 180 criminalized commercial sexual exploitation with penalties of seven to nine 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 10 trafficking investigations (five for sex trafficking, three for labor trafficking, and two for unspecified exploitation) involving four suspects, compared with initiating 29 trafficking investigations (21 for sex trafficking and eight for labor trafficking) involving 16 suspects in 2020 and five trafficking investigations (four for sex trafficking and one for labor trafficking) involving 12 suspects in 2019. Officials reported ongoing investigations in five cases from previous reporting periods. The government prosecuted two alleged sex traffickers, compared with prosecuting three alleged traffickers in 2020, 10 in 2019, and 12 in 2018. One accused trafficker awaited trial in a prosecution initiated prior to 2021. The government convicted two sex traffickers, compared with convicting three traffickers in 2020, 13 in 2019, and eight in 2018. The courts convicted both traffickers under the anti-trafficking law—rather than under related statutes carrying lesser penalties, as occurred in two of three convictions secured in 2020—and sentenced one sex trafficker, convicted of trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion, to 23 years’ imprisonment; the other convicted sex trafficker received a sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment.

Observers reported that a lack of procedural guidelines for judges and prosecutors unfamiliar with trafficking casework occasionally hindered successful convictions. Officials reported that courts were open during the reporting period, but, as a pandemic-mitigation measure, they conducted a mix of in-person and virtual hearings; in November, courts returned fully to in-person hearings. However, the government continued to divert officers and other staff from regular duties, including investigating trafficking crimes, to enforce curfews and other restrictions. The government’s pandemic-mitigation measures, including mandatory curfews, remained in place until November. Periodic media reports continued to cite previously reported allegations of sex trafficking in National Secretariat for Children, Adolescents, and the Family (SENNIAF) shelters; the government reported it investigated these allegations and found no evidence to support them. The government did not report further investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses.

The government cooperated with Colombian officials on one trafficking investigation and two information exchanges. Panamanian officials collaborated with their Colombian counterparts to trace a trafficking suspect who fled from Panama to Colombia in 2018; this joint investigation culminated in the arrest of six alleged traffickers operating in Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama. Panama and Colombia maintained joint mechanisms for investigating trafficking cases and providing services to victims under a 2018 anti-trafficking memorandum of understanding (MOU); officials held one coordination meeting under the MOU in 2021. The government offered several trainings for law enforcement and other officials, on par with the trainings offering in previous years, including instructions on victim identification for border and customs officials and workshops on investigative techniques applicable to trafficking case work for National Police officials. The government funded most trainings but accepted financial support from international organizations for some offerings; due to the pandemic, the government conducted a mix of virtual and in-person trainings in 2021.

The government increased protection efforts. Law enforcement and other entities could identify potential trafficking victims; separately, the government’s National Anti-Trafficking Commission (“the commission”) determined whether potential victims should be considered “preliminary” or “confirmed” victims. The commission reported there were 16 confirmed trafficking victims identified in 2021, compared with six victims in 2020 and 34 in 2019. Of the 16 confirmed victims identified in 2021, seven were sex trafficking victims and nine were labor trafficking victims. Despite the existence of trafficking internal to Panama, authorities identified just one Panamanian victim; most of those identified were foreign nationals from Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. All seven victims of labor trafficking were Nicaraguan. The government reported it could take several months for the commission to confirm potential victims’ status. Victims could access shelter and other services while their status was pending. In 2021, the commission ruled on the status of 23 victims, including some identified in previous reporting periods; it granted 19 potential victims, including three identified in previous reporting periods, full status as trafficking victims.

Officials reported challenges in identifying victims under the government’s pandemic-mitigation measures, including strict curfews that limited victims’ freedom of movement. Officials also noted bar and brothel closures spurred traffickers to exploit sex trafficking victims in private residences and other settings; as the government relaxed these policies, traffickers used both old and new tactics, broadening the scope of officials’ investigative work. The commission proactively supplied an identification form to assist officials who encountered potential trafficking victims, including law enforcement, border officials, and healthcare workers; however, observers noted the form’s distribution was incomplete, leaving some potential victims vulnerable to misidentification. The government reported screening vulnerable populations, including irregular migrants, for trafficking indicators but did not identify any trafficking victims during routine screenings in 2021. Despite screening efforts and law enforcement investigations, the government did not proactively identify most victims; instead, government statistics suggested officials relied on victims to report their own exploitation in roughly 50 percent of cases. Observers suggested officials under-identified Indigenous trafficking victims due to the remote location and limited services within semi-autonomous Indigenous communities. Further, officials likely under- or mis-identified internal trafficking victims while operating under a legal framework that required movement to constitute a trafficking crime. The government had guidelines for victim identification and protection, which outlined the formal procedures, internal processes, and training materials used by referring officials and the Technical Unit for Attention and Protection of Victims and Witnesses (UPAVIT).

Officials referred all victims to UPAVIT, which provided immediate care, including shelter, medical care, and legal assistance, to victims of all crimes and physical protection to victims, witnesses, and experts. In 2021, UPAVIT provided services to 19 victims, including several victims identified in previous reporting periods, as well as 15 dependents of victims; by contrast, UPAVIT provided services to 25 victims in the previous reporting period. Based on victim circumstances, UPAVIT could provide shelter, food, clothes, health services and medication, and psychological and social assistance; separately, the commission could provide victims with career training and assistance in changing migratory status. Thirteen victims received therapy and counseling services. The government trained representatives from the Public Ministry and civil society on victim protection and services; it also trained government sign language interpreters to recognize trafficking indicators and identify and refer victims to services.

The government maintained the Special Fund for Victims of Trafficking in persons, as mandated by the anti-trafficking law, to subsidize victim services provision with assets seized from traffickers; a commission sub-unit had responsibility for managing the fund. However, seized assets were insufficient to fully fund victim service provision, and the government did not otherwise allocate funding specific to the anti-trafficking commission or victim services. As a result, agencies drew from their general budgets to fund the anti-trafficking commission and the provision of food, shelter in hotels, transportation, and psychological and legal services for potential victims. During the reporting period, the commission consulted with the Ministry of Economy and hired an accountant to monitor seized assets and streamline mechanisms to operationalize them for commission use. The government-funded, NGO-administered program providing hospitality sector vocational training to trafficking victims remained dormant; eight victims participated in the program in 2020 before it was suspended due to the pandemic. As a special measure during the pandemic, the government continued to provide additional support to victims in the form of food or hygiene deliveries. In 2021, UPAVIT reported further decreases in expenditures for services to trafficking victims: $1,500, compared with $3,800 in 2020 and $54,540 reported in 2019.

There were no dedicated shelters for trafficking victims. As a result, authorities commonly placed victims in hotels and covered the cost of the hotel rooms. The government could also refer victims to migrant or women’s shelters run by NGOs. In 2021, the government reported providing shelter to one labor trafficking victim through UPAVIT, compared with two victims provided shelter in 2020. Victims frequently elected to return to their home countries or reside with family or friends rather than stay in hotels, potentially inhibiting victim-witness support in pending trafficking cases. The government could refer child trafficking victims to SENNIAF and its network of shelters administered by NGOs and religious organizations. However, there were credible allegations, substantiated by independent investigation, of abuse and low standards of care in SENNIAF facilities. The Attorney General’s office reported 26 ongoing investigations into abuse in SENNIAF shelters at year’s end. Although the government approved new measures to guarantee children’s right to adequate care, observers expressed concerns SENNIAF’s budget was insufficient to support restructuring or other largescale efforts to improve the overall provision of care and reduce residents’ risk of suffering abuse, which heightened their vulnerability to trafficking. However, officials reported there were no allegations of abuse levied against the shelter most commonly serving child trafficking victims.

Foreign national victims were eligible for short-term humanitarian visas, temporary residency permits extendable up to six years, and work permits. The government issued 22 provisional humanitarian visas and seven work permits to trafficking victims, compared with 17 visas and 11 work permits in 2020. Officials also renewed work permits for 12 additional victims but did not report issuing any permanent residency permits to trafficking victims for the second consecutive year, compared with 13 in 2019. The government began drafting an executive decree to establish a visa category allowing foreign national trafficking victims to petition for their dependents to immigrate to Panama; commission officials reported input from trafficking survivors spurred the initiative. The government helped repatriate one victim exploited in Panama, compared with supporting the repatriation of one victim in 2020. The government made available specialized interview rooms to allow victims to provide testimony privately to minimize the risk of re-traumatization and allowed prosecutors to request hearings be closed to the public. Prosecutors utilized these specialized interview rooms and other accommodations to facilitate several victims’ testimonies during the reporting period. Officials funded and coordinated with Costa Rican law enforcement to facilitate a foreign national victim’s testimony in the case against her trafficker. The government seized assets derived from human trafficking activities and allocated the proceeds to services for trafficking victims. In one case, authorities seized $19,742 in assets, to be set aside for victim compensation. The law allowed victims to request restitution from their traffickers during criminal cases or to file civil suit to obtain compensation; lawyers from the commission were available to assist victims seeking restitution or compensation. Labor trafficking victims could also claim compensation from their traffickers through a separate administrative process overseen by the Ministry of Labor. The government reported no victims made new requests for restitution or compensation in 2021, compared with eight victims who filed for restitution in criminal cases in 2020. Courts ordered compensation for one Costa Rican trafficking victim in a civil case; at the conclusion of the reporting period, the judge had not announced the final amount the trafficker would be ordered to pay. The government reported prosecutors continued to support seven victims’ petition for compensation in an ongoing case from 2019. No labor trafficking victims claimed compensation via the Ministry of Labor’s administrative process, compared with 16 victims who did so in 2020. The commission’s on-staff lawyers could also support trafficking victims in other legal matters; during the reporting period, commission lawyers helped a trafficking victim fight an eviction and advised another on migratory status.

The government maintained prevention efforts. The anti-trafficking commission was the lead entity responsible for coordinating the government’s anti-trafficking efforts; the Ministry of Security’s anti-trafficking office led the commission’s day-to-day activity. The commission hosted 17 interagency coordination meetings, and its sub-units met frequently throughout 2021, compared with holding no coordination meetings in 2020. The commission was responsible for implementing the 2017-2022 national anti-trafficking action plan, which expired during the reporting period; the commission began drafting, but did not finalize, a 2022-2027 action plan. The commission produced, with the support of an international organization, a cumulative review of the government’s anti-trafficking efforts based on archival records, allowing it to quantify key statistics such as trafficker characteristics. The government carried out awareness campaigns outlined in the action plan with the assistance of international organizations. In 2020, these campaigns included distributing flyers in public venues, a series of virtual awareness seminars targeting teachers and students, and numerous anti-trafficking spots on television and radio channels. The government operated several hotlines, including a national police hotline to receive tips and a 311 number for the public to report possible cases or request inspections of businesses, but it did not report the number of trafficking-related calls received. The government did not report whether the online anonymous portal for reporting criminal activity, including trafficking, remained active.

The Ministry of Labor collected regular reports from all registered recruitment agencies; the ministry launched a digital platform for recruitment agency licensing, which included a public registry where workers could verify an agency’s licensure. National laws and regulations provided the authority to revoke the licenses of fraudulent recruiters and those using recruitment fees; in practice, the government did not proactively enforce these regulations, instead relying on formal complaints from workers to prompt investigations into unlawful recruitment practices. The National Migration Service did not respond to a 2020 Public Ministry recommendation to update standard operating procedures to ensure border officials verify the validity of overseas adoptions to detect traffickers using fraudulent documentation to pose as the adoptive parents of child trafficking victims. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. Panamanian schools continued to rely on virtual instruction as a pandemic-mitigation measure, curtailing school-based trafficking awareness programs. The Ministry of Education conducted a series of virtual trafficking awareness events for teachers in 2021. The government reported the Ministry of Education’s in-person anti-trafficking “liaison” program remained dormant in 2021 and 2020. By comparison, officials conducted 49 anti-sexual exploitation workshops and several anti-trafficking seminars for teachers through these programs in 2019.

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Panama, and, to a lesser extent, traffickers exploit victims from Panama abroad. Most identified trafficking victims are foreign adults exploited in sex trafficking, especially women from South and Central America. However, traffickers also exploit Panamanians in sex trafficking in Panama, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Government reporting indicates more than two-thirds of convicted traffickers are foreign nationals, primarily from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Colombia, and Venezuela; roughly half of traffickers are men. Cuban nationals working in Panama may have been forced to work by the Cuban government. Traffickers exploit children in forced labor, particularly domestic servitude, and sex trafficking in Panama. Children living in shelters are vulnerable to recruitment by traffickers. Traffickers take advantage of transgender individuals’ increased vulnerability—stemming from limited economic opportunity, entrenched discrimination, and demand for commercial sex acts from this population—to exploit them in commercial sex. Limited economic opportunity and entrenched discrimination also contribute to increased vulnerability to labor trafficking for the wider LGBTQI+ community.

Venezuelan and Nicaraguan migrants are increasingly at risk for both sex and labor trafficking. Traffickers exploit some adults from Central America who transit Panama en route to the Caribbean or Europe in sex trafficking or forced labor in their destination countries. Traffickers exploit Indigenous women from rural, impoverished border areas of the country in forced labor. Traffickers exploit men from Central and South America, the PRC, and Vietnam in forced labor in construction, agriculture, mining, restaurants, door-to-door peddling, and other sectors using debt bondage, false promises, exploitation of migratory status, restrictions on movement, and other means. Traffickers have forced victims to consume illegal drugs as a coercive measure. Traffickers typically exploit sex trafficking victims in bars and brothels; however, they increasingly exploit these victims in beauty parlors, spas, houses rented by traffickers, and private homes. Traffickers utilize social media and messenger apps to recruit victims. Men from the United States have been investigated as child sex tourists in Panama. Government officials have been investigated and arrested for alleged involvement in trafficking.

U.S. Department of State

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