Panama Closes Narcotrafficking Routes

The Panamanian Public Force seized large amounts of cocaine in a long-term operation conducted nationwide.
Roberto López Dubois/Diálogo | 3 January 2019

Transnational Threats

The Panamanian Public Force seized nearly 25 tons of cocaine in several operations throughout the country during the first three months of Operation Shield. (Photo: Panamanian National Air and Naval Service)

Panama concluded 2018 dealing a hard blow to narcotrafficking with Operation Shield (Operación Escudo), a joint initiative of Panamanian security branches that kicked off October 1st. In just three months, the Panamanian Public Force seized nearly 25 tons of drugs and arrested more than 120 people in several operations throughout the country. According to the Public Force, most of the drug seized belonged to Clan del Golfo, a Colombian organized armed group.

“There are large amount of drugs in transit, due to the increase of narcotrafficking and drug production near the Colombian border,” Commissioner Eric Estrada, director of the Panamanian National Border Service (SENAFRONT, in Spanish), told Diálogo. “Clan del Golfo is responsible for 85 percent of the drugs shipped to the international market, and that’s why it’s the main structure to dismantle at this time.”

Shield, which will extend to the end of September 2019, seeks to create a permanent and sustained siege against narcotrafficking, using all air and naval means with intelligence support from Colombian, Costa Rican, and U.S. security forces. Although Shield is a nationwide initiative, the operations focus mainly on border areas with Colombia and Costa Rica, as well as coastal areas along the Pacific and the Caribbean.

“We stationed our people just meters or kilometers away from the border [with Colombia], in the vastest, most secluded areas,” Comm. Estrada said. “In the western area, close to the Costa Rican border, we must divert the drugs heading to the U.S. market, [as well as] the money coming from the drug trade.” 

The operations

Only three days into Shield, SENAFRONT units carried out a combined operation with the Colombian Armed Forces, which resulted in the seizure of a Robinson helicopter with Panamanian registration and 224 kilograms of cocaine. The operation was conducted in the Darien jungle on October 4th, near Alto Limón Binational Base on the Panamanian-Colombian border.

“Units of both countries that work in the area reported hearing constant flyovers,” said Colombian National Police Major General Jorge Luis Vargas Valencia, head of the Criminal Investigation Directorate and Interpol. “This has been one of the most important outcomes in terms of Panamanian-Colombian cooperation in the fight against narcotrafficking.”

Units of the Panamanian National Border Service deployed to the Colombian and Costa Rican borders to close narcotrafficking routes. (Photo: Panamanian National Border Service)

Authorities were able to locate the aircraft loaded with hundreds of drug packages, thanks to information from units of the binational base, intelligence work, and combined follow-up. Authorities believe the drugs and the helicopter belonged to Clan del Golfo and that the group moved about 250 kilograms of cocaine per week.

“Little by little, we cornered them,” said Ricardo Carriazo, head of the Special Office against Drug Trafficking, under the Colombian Office of the Attorney General. “They lose the drug shipment and a helicopter worth about $350,000."

Another seizure occurred on December 4th on the Santa Maria River, in Panama’s Herrera province. During riverine operations, units of the Panamanian National Air and Naval Service (SENAN, in Spanish) detected a speedboat and its crew acting suspiciously. The capture of the speedboat and the two Colombian nationals on board led SENAN to a hideout containing 39 bags with 1.2 tons of cocaine.

Successful results

Several operations with positive results were carried out in the first three months of Shield. According to Comm. Estrada, the nearly one-year plan consisting of seven phases focuses on intelligence, operational, and comprehensive operations to project the government through social action and crime prevention.

“The mission [also] includes interventions in these [vulnerable] communities,” Comm. Estrada said. “We use all the strength and capabilities of the Panamanian state to increase our presence, improve public infrastructure, and develop successful entrepreneurship programs in ecotourism, fishing, agriculture, and cattle raising, so that inhabitants can play a productive role in the country’s economy and cut any links to criminal organizations.”

Through Shield, SENAN arrested 94 people and seized a total of 18.8 tons of illicit substances and 35 means of transport, including vehicles and vessels, between October 1st and December 6, 2018. SENAFRONT arrested 27 people and seized 9 tons of cocaine, 72 firearms, one helicopter, four vehicles, five vessels, and more than $1 million.

“Operation Shield is a dynamic, flexible, and intricate strategy that intends to increase access to operational information in the search for new operational scopes,” Comm. Estrada said. “It transcends what we used to do.”

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