Panama closed 2022 accomplishing a major feat in the fight against narcotrafficking with the seizure of 128.6 tons of drugs in different operations throughout the year, Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo told the National Assembly in January.
“Due to its geographic location Panama is easily connected to all ports in Europe, Asia, and Oceania,” Patricio Candanedo, a Panamanian former anti-drug prosecutor, told Diálogo on January 12. According to Candanedo, the illegal drugs that arrive in the country mainly make their way through the Darién Gap, on the border with Colombia, an area plagued with the presence of illegal coca leaf crops and transiting members of dissident groups of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
“During these operations against this scourge, security forces captured 623 narcotraffickers — that is 415 Panamanians and 204 foreigners,” Panamanian Minister of Public Security Juan Manuel Pino told the press.
According to the Ministry of Public Security, the joint work of security forces led to drug seizures, with more than 400 anti-narcotics operations carried out nationwide. The Central American country is considered a corridor for drugs transiting from South America to the United States and Europe.
Nearly all the drugs that enter Panamanian territory are bound for other countries, Candanedo said, because the percentage of local consumption is very low. “Panama is not a drug producing country, cultivation exists at the initial stage,” the former prosecutor said.
In the last weeks of 2022, Panama’s Attorney General Javier Caraballo said that Panamanian criminals had been helping Dubai-based narcotraffickers send drugs to Europe. Authorities in Dubai, Spain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands arrested 49 people for collaborating with this super cartel, made up of Irish, Italian, Bosnian, and Dutch-Moroccan drug traffickers, InSight Crime, an organization dedicated to the study of organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, indicated.
Among those arrested is Panamanian national Anthony Alfredo Martínez Meza, alias Hassan, who since 2017 had been operating as the super cartel’s coordinator. Along with Irishman Daniel Kinahan, he was in charge of drug shipments to Spain from Panama’s Port of Manzanillo.
According to Candanedo, since this criminal organization was found to have ties with Panamanian citizens, the investigations must continue in Panama, even though Europol coordinated the operation, dubbed Desert Light.
“Criminal groups with a transnational character that are in Panama generally operate as cells, interconnected, but with autonomy to provide services to different groups and not only drugs, but arms trafficking, human trafficking, adulterated goods, and money laundering,” Candanedo said. “ These organizations use ports and airports and U.S. authorities are [whom Panamanian authorities] mainly coordinate anti-drug work with.”
In December 2022, Minister Pino said that as long as the country’s port facilities continue to be vulnerable to narcotrafficking, these figures will continue to increase.
Between 2021 and 2022, Panamanian authorities seized 74,884 packages of illicit drugs from ports nationwide, originating from Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Peru, Panamá América news site reported.
The drugs seized — cocaine and marijuana — were bound for cities in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, India, England, Libya, the Netherlands, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Panama is currently proposing the creation of an asset recovery law, seeking to affect criminal organizations on the premises that assets acquired with the proceeds of illegal activities should not have legal protection, Panamanian newspaper El Siglo reported.
“These new tools solve issues related to cases in which properties have been acquired through illegitimate means and from committing crimes and offenses,” Andrés Ormaza, a Colombian expert and director of the Program Against Transnational Organized Crime of Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization Pan American Development Foundation, wrote in an opinion piece for newspaper La Estrella de Panamá.
Panama against the Clan del Golfo
Authorities arrested more than 20 people in 30 raids during Operation Focus on December 14, 2022, Panamanian television station TVN reported. The Office of the Attorney General, the National Police, and the National Air and Naval Service carried out the operation.
According to the Attorney General’s Office ongoing investigations, this group provided logistics support to Colombian criminal group Clan del Golfo to move their drug shipments, and used the coasts of Colón, Punta Burica, and Bocas del Toro to store and guard the drugs for subsequent shipment to Costa Rica.