LATIN AMERICA NEWS (Dialogo-Americas) — Panamanian authorities and Interpol are strengthening cooperation in the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking.

The Panamanian government has agreed to expedite revisions to the protocols of Panama’s National Police to allow the police to respond quickly to crime scenes.

Destroying illegal firearms: Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela Rodríguez helps destroy one of 100 firearms which gang members and other people surrendered to police in San Miguelito. Panamanian authorities announced a truce with gangs in July, and asked gang members to turn in their weapons. Authorities received hundreds of weapons. [Photo: Presidency of the Republic of Panama]
Destroying illegal firearms: Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela Rodríguez helps destroy one of 100 firearms which gang members and other people surrendered to police in San Miguelito. Panamanian authorities announced a truce with gangs in July, and asked gang members to turn in their weapons. Authorities received hundreds of weapons. [Photo: Presidency of the Republic of Panama]
The revised protocols and improved cooperation between Panamanian security forces and Interpol, the international police agency, will help authorities fight international organized crime groups, according to Public Security Minister Rodolfo Aguilera.

“Transnational organized crime is a cross-border and multi-jurisdictional issue,” Aguilera said. Aguilera made his remarks on July 24 at Interpol’s Operation Lionfish 2 meeting held in Panama City, according to a statement from the Ministry of Security. Representatives of 20 Latin American countries attended the conference.

Interpol meeting: Representatives of 20 Latin American countries attended the meeting “Operation Lionfish 2” in Panama on July 24 and 25. They agreed to strengthen the fight against organized crime groups. [Photo: Ministry of Public Security]

Interpol meeting: Representatives of 20 Latin American countries attended the meeting “Operation Lionfish 2” in Panama on July 24 and 25. They agreed to strengthen the fight against organized crime groups. [Photo: Ministry of Public Security]

Panamanian security forces would coordinate crime prevention efforts and streamline the protocols the National Police must follow as part of the security strategy to fight organized crime, Aguilera said.

Quick response and crime prevention

The government is decentralizing decision making power to give mid-level authorities more power to make tactical decisions to respond quickly to crimes committed by transnational criminal organizations.

Authorities are also emphasizing crime prevention programs, which are primarily tailored to gang members and teenagers and young adults who are considered to be at risk of joining gangs. These programs include social assistance, education, counseling, and occupational training. Authorities are providing these programs with the goal of helping gang members redirect their lives.

The programs could also help young people who are at risk of delinquency make the right choices, according to Paul Chávez, security analyst at Universidad Latina de Costa Rica. There are about 200 gangs in Panama, which have about 4,500 members, according to Panamanian officials.

“These initiatives will be beneficial,” Chávez said. “Authorities seek initiatives that have a positive impact on the region.”

There is a global trend among security forces to decentralize authority to give mid-level officials more power to respond quickly to criminal threats, Chávez said.

Reintegrating gang members into civil society

In July, about 1,100 teenagers and young adults – many of them gang members – joined the prevention aspect of the president’s anti-crime program. The prevention part is called “Secure Neighborhoods with More Opportunities and Strong Leadership.”

The president spoke of the strong start to the prevention program on Aug. 6, during an event in which authorities destroyed hundreds of firearms which had been surrendered to police by gang members and at-risk youth, according to a press release from the Presidency of Panama.

The gang members and young people handed over their weapons to authorities in July. Authorities announced a truce with gangs that month, asking gang members and at-risk young people to turn in their firearms. Authorities also helped gang members who wanted leave their gang and be reintroduced to civil society.

Authorities are providing job training to gang members who wish to leave behind the criminal lifestyle and become productive members of society.

Transnational criminal operatives in Panama

Since January 2012, Interpol agents in Panama have captured more than 20 suspects who were wanted on international warrants for crimes such as drug trafficking, money laundering, fraud, and sexual exploitation.

In January, 2012, Panama Interpol captured 19 alleged drug traffickers, according to Telemetro. Panama Interpol agents captured most of those suspects at Tocumen International Airport.

In May 2014, Panama Interpol agents and immigration officials at Tocumen International Airport arrested two people accused of drug trafficking and fraud, respectively.

That month, Panama Interpol agents also arrested a 29-year-old man from Colombia who wanted to go to Costa Rica. The suspect accused of drug trafficking is wanted by the French justice system. Authorities did not release the suspect’s name for security reasons, El Nuevo Diario reported on May 8.

Cracking down on crime at the airport

Panamanian authorities are taking strong steps to fight crimes committed at Tocumen International Airport.

On July 23, the Public Prosecutor’s Office created a specialized unit for the investigation, prevention and punishment of crimes committed at the airport, according to La Prensa.

The unit will operate in cooperation with the National Directorate for Aviation Security and will work in cooperation with drug prosecutors, organized crime prosecutors, and the Deputy Attorney General’s Office.

The unit was formed as part of an agreement between the Airport Communication Project, the United Nations (UN), and Panamanian security forces. The unit is designed to help security forces in their battle against drug traffickers, authorities said.

Drug traffickers in recent years have increased their operations in Panama, a country of more than 3.4 million people, Chávez said. Drug traffickers store large amounts of drugs from South American in Panama. Organized crime operatives then transport the drugs to Mexico, the United States, and Europe.

A regional approach

Drug traffickers may have increased their operations at the airport because Panamanian security forces in recent years have strengthened security along the country’s borders.

Several transnational and regional drug trafficking organizations operate in Panama, including the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, Los Zetas, the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO), which are all Mexican transnational criminal organizations, according to authorities and insightcrime.org. The Clan Úsuga, a drug trafficking group based in Colombia, also operates in Panama.

Panama and the other Interpol member-countries are using a regional approach to fight organized crime, Chávez said. Such an approach requires international cooperation, which Panama’s president is prepared to engage in.

President Varela “has a good perspective on how to work out these issues,” Chávez said.

Cooperation among different law enforcement agencies is an important component of the fight against organized crime, according to Omar Pinzón, Panama’s National Police director.

“Common and effective strategies that incorporate the strengths of each agency and institution need to be conceptualized in order for all to benefit with security,” Pinzón said. He made these remarks as he participated in Interpol’s Operation Lionfish 2 meeting, according to a press release from the National Police issued on July 24.

Operation Lionfish aims to develop the best ways to fight transnational criminal organizations, seize drugs and weapons in territorial waters and in border areas, and to improve security in the participating countries.

The conference was held at a hotel in Panama City on July 24 and 25. Security officials from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe participated in the meeting. Among the 20 Latin American countries which sent representatives to the conference were Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Honduras.


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