Major Drug Bust Underlines Panama’s Growing Transit Use

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A one ton drugs bust near the border with Colombia has shone a light on the increasing use of Panama as a transit nation, part of a continuing shift away from direct imports into Mexico.

Panama’s State Border Service (SENAFRONT) announced the discovery of 50 bags containing US$70 million worth of cocaine in a speed boat that was abandoned after a police chase in the Darien Gap region — the inhospitable jungle gateway between Central and South America dominated by narco-paramilitaries and guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), reported Telemetro.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Panama

The drugs were shipped from Colombia along the Pacific Coast — an increasingly important route at this time of year because treacherous conditions in the Caribbean Sea make it difficult to navigate. Panamanian authorities said Pacific interdiction efforts had been ramped up to meet this trend, reported Telemetro.  

According to authorities, a second boat managed to escape after fleeing back to Colombian waters.


InSight Crime Analysis

Panama is an essential link between the Andean coca producing region and the biggest single cocaine market, the US, and has long been a strategic transit point for South American drug traffickers. However, drug seizures have been on the rise in recent months, with last year seeing a 15 percent increase compared to 2012; more proof that traffickers favor transit through Central America than direct shipment to Mexico. Successful interdiction operations in Mexico have also seen a similar shift towards Caribbean routes in recent years.

While Panama made the majority of its 2013 seizures along the Atlantic route — with traffickers using go-fast boats to bounce along the coast and through the Caribbean — this case also highlights how important the Pacific route remains. The Pan-American Highway, which stretches all the way into North America, is another common trafficking route through Panama.

Much of the Darien Gap — which is too rugged for the Pan-American Highway to pass through — is dominated by the FARC’s 57th front, which personally engages in drug trafficking, as well as charging taxes to other traffickers to guarantee safe passage. The extent of the group’s influence within Panamanian soil was highlighted late last year with the revelation that one of its commanders was a former Panamanian policeman.

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