Panamanian authorities have discovered weapons and “sophisticated missile equipment” on a ship traveling from Cuba to North Korea along the Panama Canal, raising the question of who tipped off the raid.
President Ricardo Martinelli said the undeclared cargo appeared to include missile equipment and non-conventional arms and was hidden beneath containers of sugar, reported the Associated Press.
Authorities had been tipped off a few days ago that the ship might be carrying drugs, he said.
Only one of the ship’s five cargo holds had been searched at the time of reporting. “We’re going to keep unloading the ship and figure out exactly what was inside,” said the president on Panamanian television, reported Reuters. “You cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal.”
Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told the AP that the seized ship had been caught trafficking drugs and small arms ammunition in the past.
Martinelli posted a poor quality photo of the seizure on his Twitter feed.
InSight Crime Analysis
Panama is a major transshipment point for Colombian cocaine and an international money laundering haven, yet very few of thousands of ships passing along the Panama Canal every year are searched. The canal, a key international trade asset, is the lifeblood of Panama’s economy and to conduct regular searches would be extremely bad for business. A timely tip-off clearly resulted in this recent arms seizure. Given that the parties involved in the wrongdoing were Cuba and North Korea, it’s worth speculating whether the United States provided the intelligence.
It is also worth considering just how many other weapons, drug shipments, and contraband items may be moving along the canal undetected — is the canal a hub for international crime as well as trade?