The latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) from the US State Department dated March 2023 has been released. It confirmed that Panama was one of the “major illicit drug producing and/or drug-transit countries” identified and notified to Congress by the President on 16 September 2020.
Among other things, this report said –
- Panamanian security forces set a record for narcotics seizures in 2021, surpassing 100 metric tons (MT) for the first time in history, with a record 145 MT seized. For the second year in a row, Panama exceeded 100 MT in narcotics seizures in 2022;
- Panama is not a major consumer or producer of illicit drugs, but over 1,500 miles of coastline with nearly 500 rivers, the Panama Canal, and its proximity to Colombia make it a prime sea and land passage for drugs, primarily cocaine, flowing from South America to North America and Europe. Up to 40 percent of northward-bound cocaine produced in neighbouring Colombia passes through Panama’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), transported by transnational criminal organizations (TCO) and their associates off both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Less than 5% of Colombian cocaine flows overland across the border due to the dense jungle and lack of roads. Drug traffickers also take advantage of the millions of shipping containers passing through the Panama Canal each year to smuggle drugs to North America and Europe;
- More than 4 million containers are transshipped (transferred from one vessel to another) at Panamanian ports each year, where they are vulnerable to use in drug smuggling; and
- In 2021, Panama shattered its previous 2019 seizure record, due in part to increased container seizures from the US-mentored Port Task Force (PTF), sustained high operations tempo in the maritime environment, and increased inter-service collaboration through the US-supported Joint Regional Air and Navy Operations Center (CROAN). Many Panamanian government agencies, including the Ministry of Security, experienced significant budget reductions in 2021 due to economic contractions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and global economic turmoil in 2022.
In May 2022, Panama inaugurated the CROAN, a US-supported initiative to strengthen Panama’s maritime security. It is taking steps to operationalize the CROAN, including by further developing the Joint Maritime Force (JMF-Panama), a concept based on the US Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S), through curriculum standardisation and training. US law enforcement agencies cooperate with the National Police (PNP) and the SENAN, and SENAFRONT Panamanian agencies in support of Panama’s counternarcotics missions. SENAN and the US also collaborate on maritime interdictions under the 2002 Salas-Becker Agreement. In 2022, Panama and the US further strengthened bilateral relations through mutual legal assistance and extraditions.
From January to April 2022, the US and Panama collaborated to complete a third unmanned aircraft system (UAS) deployment to interdict the illicit flow of narcotics across various transit zones, resulting in the seizure of 13 MT of cocaine, 3 MT of marijuana, and the arrest of 56 suspects.
Drug use in Panama is not as common as it is in other Central and South American countries. According to the OAS 2019 Report on Drug Use in the Americas, its most recent, Panama has the third-lowest rate of marijuana consumption and the lowest rate of cocaine consumption of the 15 Central and South American countries studied. Panama has not updated its strategy on demand reduction since 2012 and has not conducted a drug demand study since 2015.
The report’s conclusion was that –
Panama’s foremost priority should be:
- passing the asset forfeiture law through the National Assembly to deter drug trafficking, money laundering, and corruption and to sustain future law enforcement activities.
Other recommendations include:
- increasing anticorruption efforts to promote the rule of law and transparency;
- developing a citizen security strategy that expands community policing programs and provides a whole-of-government response to reduce violence in crime-ridden communities by using prevention programs; and
- budgeting to sustain security-related assets, both national and donated, in order to maintain and increase its capacity to defeat TCO and deter narcotics trafficking throughout Panama