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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, if any, of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Panama remained on Tier 2.  These efforts included convicting and sentencing three traffickers to adequate penalties under the anti-trafficking statute and supporting victims’ right to restitution from traffickers.  The government identified five Panamanian trafficking victims despite ordinarily focusing on foreign victims; implemented a policy to make foreign victims’ dependents eligible for residency permits; and sought survivor input in victim protection efforts.  However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas.  Authorities identified fewer victims and did not prosecute any traffickers.  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 failed to identify some 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.
  • Complete and implement the draft SOP to guide prosecutors and judges in trafficking cases.
  • Train law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and prosecute traffickers using the trafficking offense rather than lesser offenses.
  • 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.
  • Train judges to understand the importance of restitution in trafficking cases.

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 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 seven trafficking investigations (four for sex trafficking, two for labor trafficking, and one for “practices akin to slavery”) involving 23 suspects, compared with initiating 10 trafficking investigations (five for sex trafficking, three for labor trafficking, and two for unspecified forms of trafficking) involving four suspects in 2021, and 29 trafficking investigations involving 16 suspects in 2020.  Officials reported ongoing investigations in two cases from previous reporting periods.  The government did not prosecute any traffickers in 2022, compared with prosecuting two alleged sex traffickers in 2021 and three alleged traffickers in 2020, and 10 in 2019.  Two accused traffickers awaited trial in prosecutions initiated prior to 2022; the government held seven suspected traffickers in pretrial detention.  The government convicted three sex traffickers under the trafficking law, compared with convicting two sex traffickers in 2021, three in 2020, and 13 in 2019.  The courts sentenced these traffickers to six, eight, and 15 years’ imprisonment, as well as fines.  Appeals courts upheld sentences and convictions against two sex traffickers during the reporting period; the courts acquitted one accused labor trafficker.

The National Police had two non-specialized units which shared responsibility for investigating trafficking crimes; both units worked closely with the General Prosecutor’s Specialized Crime Office, which directed investigations and led prosecutions of trafficking crimes across Panama.  A specialized prosecutorial unit within the office oversaw most trafficking casework in the Panama City metropolitan area and supported prosecutors pursuing trafficking cases in other parts of the country.  The government had an SOP, created in 2020, to guide judges and prosecutors adjudicating trafficking cases.  Still, observers reported some prosecutors’ lack of familiarity with trafficking casework occasionally hindered successful convictions.  Several ministries coordinated with an international organization to begin drafting an SOP for prosecutors leading trafficking cases; the project remained ongoing at the end of the reporting period.  The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses. The government cooperated with Colombian officials on one information exchange and with Costa Rican officials in a joint child sex trafficking investigation.  In the course of this joint investigation, officials arrested four suspected child sex traffickers, all women, accused of using fraudulent job offers or scholarships to target girls and their parents on social media, then exploiting the girls in commercial sex; officials also identified nine potential sex trafficking victims of Indigenous descent, four of whom authorities later confirmed as victims, and reported two of the four suspected traffickers were relatives of the identified victims.  In November 2022, Colombian officials extradited to Panama an alleged sex trafficker, later convicted and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment under a plea bargain.  Panama and Colombia maintained joint mechanisms for investigating trafficking cases and providing services to victims under a 2018 anti-trafficking MOU; officials did not hold any coordination meetings under the MOU in 2022.  The government offered several trainings for law enforcement and other officials, on par with the trainings offered in previous years, including instruction on victim identification for border and customs officials and investigative techniques applicable to trafficking case work for police officials.  The government funded several trainings but accepted financial support from international organizations for many offerings; the government conducted a mix of in-person and virtual trainings in 2022.

The government maintained 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 authorities confirmed the identification of eight victims in 2022, compared with 16 confirmed victims in 2021 and six victims in 2020.  Of the eight confirmed victims identified in 2022, five were Panamanian girls exploited in sex trafficking and three were Nicaraguan men exploited in forced labor.  In addition, there were 11 preliminary victims awaiting a ruling on their status at the end of 2022; officials reported identifying 10 of these preliminary victims during an investigation into forced begging allegations associated with a religious group operating in Panama City.  In 2022, the commission ruled on the status of 22 victims, compared with 23 in 2021; it granted eight of these potential victims full status as trafficking victims.  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.

The commission proactively supplied an identification form to assist officials who encountered potential trafficking victims, including law enforcement, border officials, and healthcare workers; due to an incomplete implementation of formal identification procedures, some victims may have remained unidentified within the law enforcement system.  The government reported screening for trafficking indicators at locations where commercial sex was known to occur and among vulnerable populations, including irregular migrants; officials did not identify any trafficking victims during routine screenings in 2022.  Despite screening efforts and law enforcement investigations, the government did not proactively identify most potential or preliminary victims; instead, officials frequently relied on victims to report their own exploitation.  Observers suggested officials under-identified Indigenous trafficking victims due to the remote location and limited services within semi-autonomous Indigenous communities.  Further, officials likely failed to identify some 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 to victims of all crimes and physical protection to victims, witnesses, and experts.  Based on trafficking victims’ circumstances, UPAVIT could provide shelter, food, clothes, health services and medication, legal support, and psychological and social assistance; separately, the commission could provide victims with career training and assistance in changing migratory status.  In 2022, UPAVIT provided services to 26 victims, including several identified in previous reporting periods, and 27 family members, mostly children, of victims; by contrast, UPAVIT provided services to 19 victims and 15 victims’ children in 2021.  Eight of the 26 victims receiving services were preliminary victims identified in 2022; the government provided legal counsel, support for immigration regularization, and basic medical care while their victim status was pending.  The government provided treatment to one victim suffering from a substance abuse disorder; 12 victims received therapy and counseling services, compared with 13 in 2021.  The government provided trafficking victims deliveries of food and hygiene supplies on an ad-hoc basis.  The government coordinated with a civil society organization to train officials from several ministries on victim-centered approaches and support for victims participating in law enforcement processes.

The government seized assets derived from human trafficking activities and allocated the proceeds to the commission to fund services and victim compensation and maintained the Special Fund for Victims of Trafficking in persons, as mandated by the anti-trafficking law, to house the funds; a commission sub-unit had responsibility for managing the fund, which contained $27,090 at the end of the reporting period.  The commission received a deposit of approximately $19,750 in November 2022 following the liquidation of assets seized in a 2021 trafficking case; officials noted $9,883 in seized assets were pending liquidation at the end of the reporting period.  However, the government did not allocate funding specific to the commission or victim services in its annual budget and seized assets were insufficient to fully fund victim service provision.  As a result, ministries drew from their general budgets to fund the commission and the provision of food, shelter in hotels, transportation, and psychological and legal services for potential victims; officials indicated many agencies did not track or disaggregate spending to support trafficking victims.  However, the Ministry of Public Security (MINSEG) reported $398,196 in expenditures tied to the commission, including victim assistance and staffing costs; UPAVIT reported spending at least $1,911 to fund shelter, food, and other basic expenses for trafficking victims, compared with $1,500 in 2021, $3,800 in 2020 and $54,540 in 2019.  The government allocated $150,000 to two ongoing projects implemented by international organizations, restoring resources diverted from these projects in 2020 to fund pandemic-mitigation measures.  The government continued to fund an NGO-administered program providing hospitality sector vocational training to trafficking victims; however, no victims participated in the program in 2022, compared with eight victims in 2020.   

There were no dedicated shelters for trafficking victims.  As a result, authorities commonly placed victims in hotels and covered the lodging costs.  The government could also refer victims to migrant or women’s shelters run by NGOs.  In 2022, the government did not provide or refer any victims to shelter, compared with providing shelter to one victim in 2021.  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 referred child trafficking victims to SENNIAF, which placed child victims with relatives or within its network of shelters administered by NGOs and religious organizations; in 2022, SENNIAF placed five child victims with relatives not associated with their exploitation.  Credible allegations, substantiated by independent investigation, indicated children in SENNIAF facilities were at risk of abuse and low standards of care, which heightened their vulnerability to trafficking; no allegations of abuse specifically cited the SENNIAF 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.  In October 2022, the government further extended trafficking victims’ visa eligibility to include victims’ dependents; commission officials reported input from trafficking survivors spurred the initiative.  The government issued or renewed 20 provisional humanitarian visas and 18 work permits for trafficking victims, compared with 22 visas and seven work permits in 2021.  Officials did not report issuing any permanent residency permits to trafficking victims for the third consecutive year, compared with 13 in 2019.  The government coordinated with civil society organizations to repatriate two foreign victims to their country of origin in 2022, compared with supporting one repatriation in 2021.  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 advance testimonies in 2022 for four victims planning to return to their countries of origin before trial proceedings.  The law allowed victims to obtain restitution from their traffickers during criminal cases or to file civil suits to obtain compensation; lawyers from the commission were available to assist victims seeking restitution or compensation.  Labor trafficking victims could also claim compensation from traffickers through a separate administrative process overseen by the Ministry of Labor.  The government reported courts ordered a convicted sex trafficker to pay $5,000 in restitution to one victim; the government did not indicate whether the payment was made within the six-month window specified by the ruling.  No victims made new requests for restitution or compensation in 2022, compared with no new requests in 2021 and eight in 2020.  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 zero victims in 2021 and 16 in 2020.   The commission’s on-staff lawyers could also support trafficking victims in other legal matters; during the reporting period, commission lawyers advised a trafficking victim in a housing dispute.

The government slightly increased prevention efforts.  The commission was the lead entity responsible for coordinating the government’s anti-trafficking efforts; it comprised two executive bodies and technical sub-commissions overseeing victim protection, the victim’s fund, and legal affairs.  Sixteen government institutions regularly participated in commission activity; MINSEG’s anti-trafficking office led the commission.  The commission hosted two interagency coordination meetings and more than 24 sub-commission meetings in 2022, compared with hosting more than 18 meetings in 2021 and no meetings in 2020.  The commission finalized and approved a new 2022-2027 NAP in December 2022 and was responsible for implementing the plan.  The government carried out awareness campaigns with the assistance of international organizations.  In 2022, these campaigns included distributing flyers in public venues and numerous anti-trafficking spots on television and radio channels; at least three campaigns explored the vulnerability to trafficking of individuals with disabilities.  The government operated several hotlines, including a national police hotline to receive tips, a 311 number for the public to report possible trafficking cases or request inspections of businesses, and an NGO-managed online portal to receive anonymous reports of criminal activity, including trafficking.  The government did not report the total number of trafficking-related calls received; however, it noted the National Police opened six trafficking-related investigations based on hotline calls, leading to the identification of nine potential victims.

The Ministry of Labor conducted ethical recruitment workshops for registered recruitment agencies and maintained a digital platform for recruitment agency licensing, which included a public registry where workers could verify an agency’s authorization.  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 lacked adequate SOPs to ensure border officials verify the validity of overseas adoptions to detect traffickers using fraudulent documentation to pose as the adoptive parents of potential child trafficking victims.  The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.  The Ministry of Education (MEDUCA) conducted a series of awareness events on topics related to child sexual exploitation, including human trafficking, in 2022.  MEDUCA’s anti-trafficking “liaison” program resumed in 2022 after a period of pandemic-related inactivity in 2020 and 2021; in 2022, the program hosted workshops on sexual exploitation, including human trafficking, for teachers and students at 50 schools, compared with offering 49 workshops 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.  Many identified trafficking victims are foreign women exploited in sex trafficking, especially 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 Colombia, the PRC, 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 Panama’s 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 and sex trafficking.  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; despite the relaxation of the government’s pandemic-related restrictions, traffickers continue to 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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