Panama Makes Headway in Fight against Narcorafficking

Panama seized more than three tons of cocaine on its Pacific coast.
Roberto López Dubois/Diálogo | 20 December 2017

Transnational Threats

The Special Boats Unit of Panama’s National Border Service made the largest drug seizure of 2017, with nearly 3,300 kilograms of cocaine. (Photo: Panama’s National Border Service)

In just two operations in October and November, Panama’s Public Forces seized 3,298 kilograms of cocaine on the nation’s Pacific coast. The Special Boats Unit (UBE, in Spanish) of Panama’s National Border Service (SENAFRONT, in Spanish) conducted the operations in the department of Darién that borders Colombia.

On October 22nd, in an operation on the coast of Darién, UBE intercepted a fiberglass speedboat and its crew. On board, UBE found 19 sacks containing 1,357 kilograms of cocaine. Panamanian law enforcement arrested and took into custody the crew made up of three Colombian nationals.

Largest seizure of 2017

During another operation on November 20th, on Venao Beach in the Darién province, UBE seized 2,002 brick-size drug packages. According to a SENAFRONT report, the agency had received intelligence about a drug transfer in a boat.

UBE units pursued the boat, which was abandoned on the beach. Crew members eluded the authorities yet left their cargo behind.

On board, UBE seized 66 sacks containing 1,956 packets of drugs. Another 46 packets were found floating at sea. Antinarcotics agents tallied up 1,941 kilograms of cocaine and 61 kilograms of marijuana.

“This is the largest seizure made in Panama this year,” Panamanian Minister of Public Security Alexis Bethancourt said. “Through its various agencies, the Ministry of Public Security seized more than 60 tons of cocaine and other drugs so far this year [2017].”

Tendency for success

SENAFRONT seized more than 11 tons of drugs in 2017. (Photo: Panama’s National Border Service)

According to Panamanian authorities, 68.4 tons of drugs were seized in 2016. “We have a tendency for success. There are many factors at play, but one of the most important is coordination with other countries,” Bethancourt said. “This year, we think we can break last year’s tonnage record.”

In turn, Commissioner Cristian Hayer, director of SENAFRONT, explained that a new strategy that is starting to yield results was implemented in 2017. “This year, the crews of each [UBE] boat were integrated with special forces and intelligence units, which allowed us to get better results for this unit’s operations,” he said.

UBE units belong to SENAFRONT’s Special Forces Group and receive special training. Each UBE vessel carries five to seven people, including operational, logistics support, and intelligence units.

From January 1st to November 30th, 2017, SENAFRONT seized 10,675 packages containing more than 11 tons of cocaine. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 1 kilogram of cocaine has a maximum value of $55,000 on the international market. With those figures, the two latest seizures could be valued at more than $180 million.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Panama is an important bridge for the illicit transit of drugs due to its location. Transnational narcotrafficking organizations move drugs through the remote region of Darién and along the Panamanian coast.

UBE’s importance

“This unit [UBE] maintains a permanent presence in both of Panama’s seas,” Hayer said. “It’s in charge of interdicting any vessel suspected of being used for criminal acts in Panama’s maritime borders.”

UBE exchanges information with other nations and enjoys support from Panama’s security agencies, such as the National Air and Naval Service (SENAN, in Spanish). Commissioner Hayer said that UBE receives information “about the movement of suspect vessels for drug cases and other types of transnational crime, which is an important form of support for such operations.” Together, SENAFRONT and SENAN seized more than 35 of the 60 tons of drugs confiscated in 2017.

SENAFRONT is one of the four components of Panama’s Public Forces. With more than 4,000 personnel, SENAFRONT maintains security along the more than 700 kilometers of border with Colombia and Costa Rica, and 2,400 kilometers of coastline along the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea through UBE.

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