Panama’s Public Forces Score Big Gains in Counter-Narcotics Fight

By Dialogo
August 12, 2011

Panama’s public forces continue to disrupt drug traffic heading through their country by making multiple big busts — especially those involving boats and cargo shipments along shorelines. One of the year’s biggest drug busts came July 8, when Panama’s National Naval Air Service (SENAN) intercepted and searched a 61-foot sailboat off the Atlantic port city of Colón.
Buried in the steel hull of the U.S.-registered Intaka was something better than treasure. SENAN found 14 55-gallon drums of liquid cocaine. The force arrested the ship’s Spanish captain and a Colombian woman aboard the vessel that sailed from the Caribbean port of Cartagena, Colombia, and was en route to Honduras to deliver its three-ton payload.
“This is the first time SENAN has seized liquid cocaine this year,” Vladimir Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Panamanian service, told reporters.
But that wasn’t SENAN’s only big drug bust this year. On July 4, the force — in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard — boarded the Fifita 500 off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Inside, they found 1.8 tons of cocaine. The busting of the Cook Islands-registered vessel allowed Panama’s minister of public security, José Raúl Mulino, to hail the victory as another benchmark in his country’s war on drugs.
“It is truly a massive seizure,” he declared. “With that, Panama remains at the forefront of the countries in Latin America in the drug bust.”
On June 18, SENAN also recovered 452 kilos of marijuana that had been abandoned in a small vessel by fleeing drug traffickers. The stash was found along the beach in the Panamanian province of Darién, on the Pacific coast. Four drug runners had attempted to bring the marijuana into Panama but fled, hiding the drugs and never reaching the shore.
“Citizen input will help to keep the miscreants from entering their communities, and convincing people to support them with the movement of drugs,” Mulino told reporters as he lobbied for public support. “If we do not eradicate the drug trade, it won’t help at all if the government invests money for new police officers, vehicles, aircraft, trucks, boats, police stations and naval air stations.”
But what about a new shrimp steamer?
Panama’s public forces could have used one when it popped open a large shipping container on July 23. Fifty kilos of cocaine were discovered hidden in two duffel bags inside the huge metal refrigerated box, which itself was packed around hundreds of boxes of frozen shrimp. The National Customs Authority in Puerto Balboa had received an anonymous tip about the container heading from Ecuador to Spain; an ensuing investigation into the container’s paperwork uncovered irregularities and led to the seizure.
Panama’s crackdown on drug trafficking continued well into the summer. National Police Commissioner Osvaldo Morales confirmed that officials seized nearly a ton of cocaine over in three separate operations on July 26 and 27. The two-day crackdown began with a trip to El Longoronal beach in the town of Guararé — in the central province of Los Santos —resulting in the seizure of 394 kilos of cocaine and the arrest of two Colombian nationals.
Officials first recovered about 72 kilos in four bags on board a beached dual-engine boat. The remaining 322 kilos were later found inside the vessel’s false double bottom.
That same day, authorities confiscated another 259 kilos of cocaine inside a drifting boat near the town of Santa Isabel, in Colón province.
The next day, officials saw through a clever smuggling ploy at the port of Balboa. A large shipping container carrying 363 bags of cocoa also contained 68 kilos of cocaine. Two of the 363 bags were painted black to conceal a pair of suitcases containing the drugs. Officials are hoping to track the container, which came from Ecuador and was destined for Belgium.
The Panamanian public force also did its best to keep members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from racking up frequent-flyer miles this spring.
Criminals from Mexico, Colombia and Panama were busted this April as part of an elaborate drug ring that flew drugs for FARC. The ring used Panama’s Albrook Flight School as a cover for shipping money and drugs around the globe.
Officials believe Colombians Isaac and Felipe Mosquera led the operation that shuttled drugs for the 30th and 57th fronts of FARC. Codenamed“Pacific Corridor Operation,” the mission involved 25 simultaneous raids. It ended with 25 arrests and the confiscation of 14 planes, 15 vehicles, seven guns, 265 kilos of drugs and $16,394 in cash. However, government officials didn’t want the flight school to
remain closed long. Panama is perilously low on skilled pilots and needs to keep churning out graduates. First, officials were granted the use of 14 planes to assist in tracking down Mosquera and keep their engines in working order. Then, Eustacio Fabrega, Panama’s former head of civil engineering, began lobbying for the Civil Aviation Authority to re-open the school to foster a legitimate pipeline of pilots.
• A 32-foot boat with 12 fuel tanks and nearly 1,025 kilograms of cocaine was confiscated Jan. 1 in the province of Colón. The bust was a collaborative between the Anti-Drug Operations Tactical Unit and the Anti-Drug Prosecutor's Office.
• On May 2, four members of an international drug ring were busted in Panama City with 22 kilograms of cocaine. Panama’s National Police, which made the arrest, said the drugs were hidden in the seats of a vehicle.
• On May 12, a Toyota containing 45 hidden packages of cocaine was seized and five Panamanians and two Chileans were arrested. The bust was made by Panama’s National Police and the Drug Prosecutor’s Office. Those same two agencies were involved in the June 5 arrest of a Colombian man with 79 kilograms of cocaine in Punta del Medio.
• On Aug. 1, a truck carrying 639 kilograms of heroin was confiscated by officials near the remote coastal town of Gobea. It is the largest heroin seizure in Central American history.