Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli has succeeded in completely banishing Colombian guerrilla group the FARC from his country, he claimed, although evidence points to the contrary.
“When I assumed the presidency in 2009, 25 percent of the Darien Gap was controlled by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia),” Martinelli told AFP. “Today I can say that Panama has total sovereignty over 100 percent of its territory.”
Weak state institutions had sparked the growth of organized crime in Latin America, said the president. “We have to fight against a new breed of sophisticated and organized criminals, who have lost respect for the law and institutions,” he said.
Drug seizures in Panama have gone down from 54 tons in both 2009 and 2010 to 39 tons in 2011 and 35 tons in 2012, according to official statistics.
InSight Crime Analysis
While true that President Martinelli has improved the police through significant investment, the claim that security forces have completely eliminated the FARC from the Darien Gap is implausible. The remote and dense nature of the jungle border region with Colombia makes it very hard to police, and the FARC has taken advantage of that to store and transport cocaine for years. Just a few weeks ago, a joint operation between Panamanian and Colombian forces destroyed around 5,000 coca plants and a cocaine processing laboratory in the area, the first ever discovery of a coca plantation in Central America and an indication that FARC activities in the border region may actually have expanded, rather than decreased. Last March, another joint operation destroyed two guerrilla camps in the Darien Gap, whose large sizes were an indication of how comfortable the FARC felt operating in the zone.
Panama remains a major transhipment point for South American cocaine moving towards the United States, as well as an important money laundering location. President Martinelli will have to offer more than seizure statistics and dramatic statements if he wants to prove real progress in the country’s fight against organized crime.