$7 Mn Seizure Highlights Panama’s Continuing Role as Money Laundering Hub

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The seizure of nearly $7.2 million in cash from three Hondurans by Panamanian authorities highlights both Panama’s role as a regional money laundering hub and Honduras’ growing involvement in the transnational drug trade.

The money, which came in denominations of $20 and $100 bills, was found in eight suitcases that the Hondurans attempted to take through Tocumen airport in Panama City on January 11, reported AFP. According to police, the cash seizure was the biggest in 15 years.

Panamanian authorities said the cash was being moved for a “powerful Mexican drug cartel,” but they did not identify which one.

Meanwhile, Honduras’ Public Ministry has ordered an investigation into how airport authorities, the National Special Investigation Services Unit (DNSEI) and the Anti-Narcotics Directorate (DLCN) all failed to detect the cash shipment, despite modern x-ray equipment installed in the Toncontin airport in Tegucigalpa, reported La Prensa. Five airport employees and one border police agent have been detained in the case, reported La Tribuna.

Humberto Palacios Moya, director of Honduras’ Administrative Office of Seized Goods (OABI) expressed skepticism over official actions in the case, stating: “How can millions of dollars come through in eight suitcases? What happened is that the authorities are turning a blind eye.”

The three Hondurans will be kept in jail in Panama while authorities investigate.

InSight Crime Analysis

Panama, often described as “at the mouth of the funnel” of the cocaine trade, has long been a money laundering hub and a strategic meeting point for foreign drug traffickers. Last year, officials also identified four major Mexican cartels with a presence in the country. The movement of dirty money into Panama from places like Honduras and Guatemala is a low risk activity for major figures in cartels because — as in the present case — it is only the money runners likely to be captured if something goes wrong.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

The fact that the transporters in this case came from Honduras also highlights the growing role of this violence-ridden nation in the transnational drug trade, and the official corruption that has allowed this to happen with relative impunity.

In the political and economic chaos that followed the country’s 2009 coup, Honduras became a major transit hub for northern-bound cocaine flights. It has also seen an increasingly established presence of transnational criminal groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, and the evolution of domestic groups such as the Cachiros, a major US-targeted transit group with connections to the country’s economic elite that became a bridge between Mexican and Colombian cartels.

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