Panama Increases Drug Seizures, Despite COVID-19

Panama Increases Drug Seizures, Despite COVID-19

By Roberto López Dubois/Diálogo 
May 19, 2020

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Although a great part of the National Aeronaval Service (SENAN, in Spanish) and the National Border Service’s (SENAFRONT, in Spanish) personnel is committed to the COVID-19 Health Joint Task Force, which the Panamanian government created to respond to the coronavirus crisis, operations against transnational criminal organizations have not let up. During the first quarter of 2020, Panamanian security forces seized 22.5 tons of combined cocaine and marijuana, 9 tons more compared to the same period in 2019.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Panamanian forces seized more than 70.7 tons of drugs in 2019, an increase of 8.7 percent compared to 2018. More than 86 percent of the drugs seized were cocaine, the report indicates.

Although narcotraffickers are using the same routes, maritime routes are likely the main way to ship illicit drugs during the coronavirus pandemic, SENAN and SENAFRONT said.

“This balloon effect leads to the mutation of criminal rings, which devise other narcotrafficking methods that fit the current situation, taking advantage of the pandemic’s effects on security forces and their focus on the problem,” Major Jhonathan Indomar Ali, head of SENAN’s National Intelligence Directorate, told Diálogo. “These methods recognize that maritime routes are one of the few channels that governments have left open worldwide for supplying markets.”

Among the Public Forces’ achievements, SENAN seized a speedboat on April 26 off Tiger Island, in the Guna Yala region, carrying 1,425 kilograms of cocaine. The authorities also detained the crew — three Colombians and a Honduran citizen.

On February 19, authorities also seized a semisubmersible with about 5 tons of cocaine onboard, sailing off Bocas del Toro province. The operation, a $168 million blow to the finances of the Colombian armed group Clan del Golfo, was carried out in cooperation with the Colombian Navy and resulted in the arrest of its four Colombian crew members.

Another success, also carried out with the support of the Colombian Military Forces, was the February 19 arrest of Manuel Camilo Rentería Lemus, a Clan del Golfo leader, in the town of Chepo, Panama province. According to authorities, Rentería was leading narcotrafficking operations in the Caribbean coast of Panama.

“Historically, information sharing has played an important role in high-impact operations, and this has been maintained so far. Panama’s security forces carry out land operations and maritime interdiction operations on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts,” said Commissioner Eduardo Arauz Sánchez, head of the SENAFRONT’s Special Forces Group.

“Joint operations continue, although limited resources are deployed in the fight against COVID-19,” Maj. Ali added. “A notable example is the existing coordination with countries called the Southern Triangle, an effort carried out with the support of the U.S. government […]. Information sharing, following up on alerts, and sustained coordination between intelligence agencies with international counterparts have helped us deal a considerable blow to the financial muscle of criminal rings.”