Panama Combats Human Trafficking
By Roberto López Dubois / Diálogo February 03, 2017The country of four million people is visited by more than 13 million travelers every year. A decade from now, it is likely that about 33 million people will visit Panama each year, according to statistics from Tocumen, S.A., the international airport’s management company. While thousands of travelers arrive daily at Tocumen International Airport, in 2016 almost 20,000 people illegally passed through the country’s Darién jungle on their way to North America. Human trafficking networks take advantage of this massive movement of travelers to bring young people into the country. Most are women who have been tricked and taken from their environments to be enslaved, some to work as domestic workers, and others in prostitution. In the past 48 months, Panamanian authorities dismantled 12 human trafficking networks and freed 120 kidnapped victims, according to Rodrigo García, secretary general of the national coalition of institutions that combat this scourge in Panama and president of the Regional Coalition Against Human Trafficking, to Diálogo. “The alleged perpetrators were turned over to the court system for processing, and the young people received humanitarian aid to move on with their lives,” García said International networks The tentacles of these transnational crime networks reach into their victims’ countries of origin and into their neighborhoods. They know their immediate environment and they use this information to trick their victims with offers of a career in the arts in countries like Panama, where the dollar is used as legal tender. The young people enter the country as tourists, but once in Panama the traffickers confiscate their identity documents and force them to engage in prostitution to defray the cost of transportation, room and board, and other costs the traffickers incurred on their behalf and for which they are charged extremely high sums of money. Local organizations Trapped in a foreign country without legal status, the women have no other choice but to submit. The trafficking networks offer these women’s sexual services on the internet. They often meet clients in places provided by the traffickers, who charge their victims for the use of the facilities. Panamanian law facilitates the prosecution of this type of crime and the country recently began drafting legislation “which will allow for streamlining the work of people who prosecute this crime,” García explained. The country is working “on the construction of a shelter that will give the victims the support they need after their rescue, while the authorities investigate their case,” he said. International cooperation According to García, international cooperation is very important, and the regional coalition comprising the Central American countries, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, plays a big role. “Investigative units are represented in this coalition, which allows for direct communication and facilitates investigations in the different countries. This makes the combat against these multinational networks more effective,” García said. He added that some South American countries, such as Peru, are interested in forming a coalition in the southern region of the Americas to confront this scourge. Professional immigration service “An important step in the fight against immigration-related crimes is to give the same status to immigration officers as to other members of Panama’s security services,” Miguel López Cedeño, deputy director of the National Immigration Service, told Diálogo. Immigration officers now have the same training as members of the security forces and are paid the same, providing them with a stronger sense of belonging, which allows for a more efficient fight against crime. Likewise, the institution’s technological platform has been improved with information technology used in the United States, “which allows for more effective checks of travelers coming to Panama. By these means, the immigration authorities can streamline their exchange of information with other countries, which allows for a more efficient fight against crime,” López said. Immigration officers have also received training from the United States Embassy in Panama, which keeps personnel constantly updated. Panamanian authorities qualify the country’s efforts to slow transnational crime as positive. They also stressed the importance of working with their counterparts from other countries to stop criminals trying to use the region for illicit activity.