Panama Deals Blow to Narcotrafficking with Colombia’s Support

The Colombian-Panamanian intelligence exchange facilitates the seizure of tons of drugs in Panama.
Roberto López Dubois/Diálogo | 9 August 2018

Transnational Threats

So far in 2018, the Panamanian National Air and Naval Service has seized more than 15 tons of drugs. (Photo: Panamanian National Air and Naval Service)

In a combined operation with the Colombian National Navy, the Panamanian National Air and Naval Service (SENAN, in Spanish) seized about 450 kilograms of cocaine in northwest Panama in late June 2018. Authorities estimated the drugs’ worth at $14 million in the international market. 

During patrols and illicit maritime traffic controls in the Caribbean Sea, Panamanian and Colombian naval units identified two underground hideouts in the Valiente Peninsula, home of the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous community on the border with Costa Rica. Inside the hideouts, officers found and seized 449 packages of an illicit substance. 

In another combined operation in late April, SENAN, the Panamanian National Border Service (SENAFRONT, in Spanish), and the Colombian Navy seized more than 200 kg of cocaine in the waters of the Guna Yala indigenous territory in northeast Panama, on the border with Colombia. Chased by the Colombian Navy, the crew of a speedboat threw the drug, worth more than $6 million in the international market, overboard. 

Authorities found 10 bags with 211 packages of cocaine and seven packages of marijuana floating on the water. The three fugitives, all Colombian nationals, were captured in Colombian waters.

 “Many of our operations are possible due to the excellent information and intelligence exchange with Colombia,” Commissioner Ramón Nonato López, national director of Air and Naval Operations at SENAN, told Diálogo. “What’s important is the trust the Colombian Navy has in [SENAN’s] intelligence personnel, which maintains this direct communication.”

 Intelligence exchange

So far this year, SENAN conducted a total of 41 seizures, 21 of which were initiated thanks to information from the Colombian Navy, Commissioner López said. In the first six months of 2018, the institution seized about 15 tons of drugs in 12 operations in the Pacific and nine operations in the Caribbean.

 “When [Colombian Navy officers] receive information about any movement of illicit substances, they send it to us,” Commissioner López said. “Often its precision leads to excellent results.”

In the first six months of 2018, the Panamanian Air and Naval Service made 41 seizures, half of which the Colombian National Navy’s intelligence made possible. (Photo: Panamanian National Air and Naval Service)

Every year, Colombian Air Force and Navy personnel, along with SENAN, carry out coordination conferences to facilitate information exchange among the institutions. Under bilateral agreements, the meetings help strengthen bonds of friendship and reinforce the fight against narcotrafficking.

 “All these agreements have a common interest: minimizing the effects of illicit substance smuggling,” Commissioner Feliciano Benítez, head of Intelligence at SENAFRONT, told Diálogo. “Our institutions believe that this communication fosters an interpersonal relationship based on camaraderie, loyalty, and a common goal: to protect our citizens and every state affected by this scourge.”

Among other bilateral agreements, Colombia and Panama have an information exchange procedure under the Colombia-Panama Binational Border Commission (COMBIFRON), founded in early 2000. COMBIFRON enables the establishment of public security agreements in land, air, and naval areas of both countries. The goal is to reinforce the cooperation and exchange of efforts to neutralize the threats of drug, arms, and human trafficking, and money laundering, among other crimes.

 “This interrelation [allows for] the prompt exchange of information about new organized armed groups that form from narcoterrorist organizations after the Colombian government’s peace negotiations with FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia],” Commissioner Benítez said. “Knowing how these organizations develop is crucial for both countries, since it reveals new drug trafficking trends and activities, either at sea or through trails and roads of the wide jungle area of the Darién province in Panama and the Colombian Chocó.”

 An emerging regional leader

Due to its geographical location, Panama is an important bridge for illicit drug trafficking. On their way north, transnational drug trafficking organizations transport drugs along the Panamanian coast and through the jungle region of Darien.

 However, the 2018 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report of the U.S. Department of State highlights Panama as an emergent leader in the fight against transnational drug trafficking and organized crime. According to the report, the Central American country strengthened drug interdiction tasks in 2017.

 The Panamanian Ministry of Public Security said that Panama’s Public Force seized more than 84 tons of drugs in 2017, 12 more than in 2016. So far in 2018, Panamanian authorities have seized more than 35 tons of illicit substances.

 “The current stability our countries [Panama and Colombia] have through information exchange between our institutions reflects the commitment to the continent’s security, aimed at strengthening trust,” Commissioner Benítez concluded. “As long as our institutions support each other based on strategies and actions that deal well-aimed blows to drug trafficking organizations, a culture of lawfulness will be reinforced, as well as the wellbeing of our border communities and our contribution to security in the Americas.”

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