Panama’s Security Forces Record Banner Year in Anti-Narcotics Fight
By Dialogo January 03, 2012
For Panama, 2011 was a banner year in its war on drugs. In early December, the country cemented 12 months of combating smugglers and cartels by creating a bilateral commission with the United States to combat drug trafficking and money laundering.
Panamanian Foreign Minister Roberto Henríquez announced the commission’s formation following a summit with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The commission will be funded with $52 million raised from auctioning the gold confiscated from a Panamanian firm recently accused of money laundering and indicted in the United States as the focal point of the “Speed Joyeros” case.
Officials said 70 percent of the $52 million will go directly to combat drug trafficking and money laundering in Panama.
“The governments of Panama and the United States maintain a close relationship and are working in coordination to implement plans and programs aimed at fighting organized crime, terrorism and narcotics trafficking,” Henríquez said in a statement.
Officials ring in 2011 with drug bust
The year’s battle against drug cartels began Jan. 1 when a 32-foot boat with 12 fuel tanks and nearly 1,025 kilograms of cocaine was confiscated in the province of Colón. The bust was a collaborative effort between the Anti-Drug Operations Tactical Unit and the Anti-Drug Prosecutor’s Office.
One of the most successful ways to disrupt drug trafficking through the Panama was by making multiple big busts involving boats and cargo shipments along shorelines.
Panama’s National Naval Air Service (SENAN) made a huge bust on July 8 when it 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 were 14 55-gallon drums of liquid cocaine. The force arrested the ship’s Spanish captain and a Colombian woman aboard the vessel. The Intaka had sailed from the Caribbean port of Cartagena, Colombia, and was en route to Honduras to deliver its three-ton payload.
SENAN had plenty of big drug busts left in the calendar year.
On June 18, the force 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,” Panama’s minister of public security, José Raúl Mulino, told reporters. “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.”
On July 4, SENAN — 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 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.”
Later that month, forces backed up his claim when 50 kilos of cocaine were discovered hidden in two duffel bags inside a huge metal refrigerated box, which itself was packed around hundreds of boxes of frozen shrimp on a shipping vessel. 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 forces conduct air raid
Panama’s public forces did their best to keep members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from racking up frequent-flyer miles last spring.
Criminals from Mexico, Colombia and Panama were busted in 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 Colombian citizens 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.
However, government officials did not want the flight school to remain closed long. Panama is perilously low on skilled pilots and needs to keep the school open. 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 reopen the school to foster a legitimate pipeline of pilots.
National police crack down on smugglers
Panama’s National Police also continued amassing victories in the war on drugs.
The Panamanian National Border Service (Senafront) delivered a blow in November when it destroyed a FARC jungle camp in the remote community of Madugandí, in the province of Darién. Two alleged FARC members also were arrested by Panamanian security forces, which are attempting to stop the flow of drugs coming in across the border from neighboring Colombia.
In early October, police officers pulled over a delivery truck loaded with narcotics and fruit in the town of Yaviza. A search of the vehicle yielded 50 packages of cocaine hidden among boxes of plantains and cassavas. Two adults and a youth were arrested in the truck destined for the public market in Panama City.
But the fruit truck was not the only big vehicle bust.
A National Police cruiser spooked four suspects in a dark-colored Nissan Patrol SUV along the southern corridor of Don Bosco, causing the truck to make several reckless moves through traffic before getting stuck in a drainage ditch. The suspects fled on foot and remain at large, but several large bags of marijuana were found, along with an AK-47 assault rifle and rounds of live ammunition.
Smugglers also have turned to horses to move drugs. Instead of loading the animals with gold to be carried across the isthmus as Spanish conquistadors did more than five centuries ago, drug dealers have utilized packs of horses to smuggle narcotics through rural areas of Panama.
The State Border Service, however, has been keen on the trend and recently busted a Colombian man with four hourses loaded with 14 sacks containing more than 340 kilograms of cocaine in Molilla, in Kuna Yala. Also inside the saddlebags were 28 rounds for a 9mm pistol, two radios, two cellphones and four SIM cards for the phones.
“In one year, Panama catches well over 75 tons,” Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli recently told reporters. “And every ounce of cocaine we seize means less drugs and less crime in the streets of the United States.”