Panama Seizes Highest Volume of Drugs in 15 Years

Panama Seizes Highest Volume of Drugs in 15 Years

By Geraldine Cook
February 22, 2016

The Panamanian Ministry of Public Security’s law enforcement agencies seized 58.11 tons of drugs in 2015, the most in the past 15 years, according to the National Integrated Criminal Statistics System (SIEC) and the Prosecutor’s Office.

Law enforcement agencies under Panama’s Ministry of Public Security seized 58.11 tons of drugs in 2015. The amount, which included 52.26 tons of cocaine, is the highest volume of drugs the country’s security forces have seized since 2000, according to the National Integrated Criminal Statistics System and the Prosecutor’s Office.

The historic level of seizures is a nearly 49 percent increase over the 39.2 tons seized in 2014, and also exceeds the 54.31 tons that the country’s security forces seized in 2010, the previous high watermark.

“The frontal assault on drugs is a priority for the government of Panama,” Public Security Minister Rodolfo Aguilera said. The success is attributable to the strategies Panama deployed in 2015, including exchanging information with countries such as Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, and the United States in an effort to strike at narcotrafficking operations, Minister Aguilera explained.

The Security Minister and his Costa Rican counterpart, Luis Mata Vega, signed a memorandum of understanding in early 2015 permitting the countries to share intelligence reports to dismantle organized crime groups smuggling drugs and other contraband. The joint action empowered the countries to achieve several security victories. For example, in November, the two countries worked together to dismantle an organized crime group that was smuggling drugs out of Panama to be sold in Costa Rica.

In the operation, conducted in Costa Rica, security authorities used intelligence information from Panama to seize 49 kilograms of cocaine and approximately $14,000. Security forces arrested two Colombians and two Costa Ricans.

On the other side of the border that Panama shares with Colombia, Panama’s National Border Service (SENAFRONT) has conducted joint efforts with service members from the Colombian National Army. For example, SENAFRONT agents and Colombian service members have worked together to dig trenches and to staff security checkpoints, including one in La Unión, which is in the rainforest-covered portion of the province of Darién.

One of the many cases that has yielded arrests and seizures through joint intelligence occurred on December 27, 2015, when SENAFRONT agents seized 205 kilograms of cocaine in Agua Fría in Darién. The drugs were being transported in a false-bottomed vehicle, a trafficking mechanism frequently used to smuggle drugs across the border using travelers known as “backpackers,” said Frank Abrego, SENAFRONT’s director general. A Panamanian and a Colombian were arrested.

Min. Aguilera emphasized that continual communication with other countries in the region has helped uncover new modes of drug trafficking. “We know how they behave on each border and this helps us proceed at the right time. It is a daily battle, unrelenting, where cooperation between authorities across the border is vital.”

Operation Patria

Operation Patria, a Panamanian initiative, has also been crucial to that country’s success in fighting drug trafficking and organized crime, according to Aguilera. During the operation, which lasted 40 days between October 20th and November 30th last year, Panamanian security forces seized 3.1 tons of drugs, arrested 35 suspected narcotraffickers, and confiscated nine boats.

“This is the first time that this country has continuously, 24/7, for almost a month and a half, blocked go-fast boats and drug traffickers from entering Panamanian territory by sea,” Min. Aguilera explained. “It involved an additional effort and successful coordination employing the country’s entire government force specifically to reach this achievement, to improve security numbers in our country.”

The Director of Operations for the National Air Naval Service and the leader of Operation Patria, Commissioner Ramón Nonato López, pointed out that what set Operation Patria apart was that “we blocked maritime routes from South America, monitored the networks that support drug traffickers and intercepted identified targets to prevent drug smuggling, and detected shipments of illicit substances within Panama.”

In the past seven years, Panamanian security agencies seized 324.76 tons of narcotics: 54.2 in 2009; 54.31 in 2010; 39.64 in 2011; 35.51 in 2012; 43.79 in 2013; 39.2 in 2014; and 58.11 last year.

In 2016, Panamanian security authorities plan to continue their vigilance and to deepen cooperation with partner nations in Central America to defeat organized crime, Min. Aguilera said.