Overview: Throughout 2019, Panama remained a willing partner for bilateral and multilateral cooperation in countering terrorism. As a transit country for illicit goods, money, and migrants, Panama’s geographic location makes its willingness to engage on counterterrorism important for regional security. In 2019, Panama held national elections, resulting in a near full turnover of key government offices in July 2019. Under the new leadership of President Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo, the Panamanian government continued to cooperate on counterterrorism.
Principal areas of CT cooperation with the United States were maritime sanctions and migration. The Panamanian government de-flagged approximately 60 ships engaging in sanctions-violating actions, in support of U.S. sanctions. Through the joint Special Interest Alien (SIA) Joint Task Force, a bilateral mechanism to share information on SIAs and KSTs and detain and/or deport them as needed, the Panamanian government cooperated with U.S. authorities on several CT-related cases this year. Panama agreed to an Action Plan to address its grey-listing by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) with concrete measures to be completed in stages by May 2020 and September 2020.
Panama remained the first and only Latin American member of the Defeat-ISIS Coalition and continues to be involved in the Coalition’s Counter-Terrorism Finance Working Group. The Government of Panama participated in the November 2019 working group meeting in Luxembourg.
2019 Terrorist Incidents: There were no incidents related to international terrorism in Panama during 2019.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Panama does not have comprehensive counterterrorism legislation or a robust counterterrorism legal framework. While the country does not have a formal coordinating authority below the cabinet level, officials from the National Security Council, the National Border Service (SENAFRONT), the National Migration Service (SNM), and National Police (PNP) met frequently internally and with U.S. government officialsto efficiently coordinate and act on migration alerts, resulting in the detention and deportation of travelers who represented a security risk. Consistent with UNSCR 2396 obligations, Panama collected biographic and biometric data, shared terrorism identity information with regional partners, collected and analyzed API and PNR, and participated in INTERPOL.
The SIA Joint Task Force cooperated with U.S. authorities on several CT-related cases. The Task Force includes assignees from PNP, SENAFRONT, National Air and Naval Service, SNM, and Panama’s intelligence service (Consejo), as well as the U.S. Embassy’s DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection teams. Since its creation in the previous year, the Panamanian government has provided physical space for the Task Force to operate, and the Task Force has supported several CT-related investigations.
While Panama’s own intelligence collection capacity is limited, the Panamanian government acted as a willing partner in responding to U.S. requests. Logistical challenges, such as routing flights for deportations and a lack of diplomatic relationships with some migrants’ countries of origin, continue to limit the Government of Panama’s ability to deport. The Cortizo government signaled a willingness to increase deportations but requested U.S. government assistance to do so.
The Ministry of Security and the National Customs Authority solicited bids to address the country’s lack of cargo scanners. At the time of this report, the scanners project was pending the Panamanian government’s choice of a company to implement the project using bilateral funds. The lack of scanners significantly limits the government’s ability to analyze cargo transiting the country, including at Tocumen International Airport, which has the highest number of passenger movements in the region, and entry and exit of the Colon Free Trade Zone.
Panama continued to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement on ongoing counterterrorism cases in 2019, including individuals linked to Hizballah. However, the Panamanian government’s ability to investigate financial support to terrorist-related organizations remained limited.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Panama is a member of GAFILAT. Its FIU, the Financial Analysis Unit Panama (UAF-Panama), is a member of the Egmont Group. UAF-Panama and one of its departments covers CFT-related reviews of information and prevention efforts related to countering the financing of terrorism.
In June 2019, the FATF added Panama to its grey list of jurisdictions subject to ongoing monitoring due to strategic deficiencies and a lack of progress in the effectiveness of its AML/CFT regime. FATF specifically noted that Panama must update the terrorism finance section of its National Risk Assessment and ensure that its findings inform national CFT policies and result in corresponding changes in activities of relevant competent authorities. Panama agreed to an Action Plan with concrete measures to be completed in stages by May 2020 and September 2020.
With support from the World Bank, Panama updated Chapter 5 of its National Risk Assessment, which relates to terrorism financing. In February 2019, the Panama Maritime Authority, which oversees the world’s largest ship registry, de-flagged 59 Iranian vessels linked to sanctionable trade as outlined in UN resolutions and the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List.
Countering Violent Extremism: There were no changes in 2019.
International and Regional Cooperation: Panama is an active participant in the United Nations and regional security initiatives such as the OAS Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism (OAS-CICTE). In October 2019, Panama hosted a CICTE workshop as part of CICTE’s “Technical Assistance for Implementation of Financial Sanctions against Terrorism” project. The workshop focused on financial sanctions and domestic listings and included participation from 10 different Panamanian government institutions.
In April 2019, Panama and Dominican Republic held a peer review exercise to analyze the implementation of UNSCR 1540 in both countries and to identify areas for regional collaboration and coordination.
Separately, Panama steadily increased its cooperation with neighbors to better secure its borders against transnational criminal organizations (TCO). During 2019, Panama signed information sharing agreements with Costa Rica and Colombia to enable further cooperation to combat TCO activity. Panamanian security forces also conducted operations with Costa Rica and Colombia to identify TCO routes and networks.