Over 200 Gangs Active in Panama

Panama is continuing to struggle to confront its active and sizeable gang presence, prompting President Juan Carlos Varela to call for international cooperation in combating organized crime.

Panama’s Public Ministry has announced that at least 204 gangs are active in the country, while Nathaniel Murgas — who heads the government office charged with prosecuting organized crime  — said some 12 gangs were dismantled during 2014, reported La Prensa.

So far in 2015, three anti-gang operations have taken place, resulting in the arrest of 200 people. Nonetheless, between 2013 and 2015, not one gang member has been convicted and sent to prison, reported Panama On.

Panama’s Attorney General recently announced that the office of an anti-gang public prosecutor will be created this year, aimed at decongesting the courts and accelerating trial proceedings.

InSight Crime Analysis

The challenges street gangs pose in Panama is not new, and the country’s Attorney General has highlighted the financial and judicial burdens of combating this issue for several years now. Panama’s president also called attention to these challenges while speaking in Cartagena, Colombia during the three-day Trans-Pacific Summit, asking for increased international cooperation in combating organized crime. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Panama

The issue has been exacerbated by the presence of transnational organized criminal groups — such as Mexican cartels and the Colombia BACRIM — which have been detected conducting operations in Panama; apparently hiring local street gangs for drug transportation services and paying them in cash, drugs, or weapons. Some Panama gangs are even allegedly running “oficinas de cobro,” or criminal cells involved in transnational drug trafficking operations.

Since taking office, President Varela has taken some creative measures to tackle the threat of street gangs, such as offering job training and amnesty for gang members in order to lure them away from criminal activity. Panama also spent 7.4 percent of its GDP in 2013 to contain violence.

Nonetheless, the growth of Panamanian gangs and their expanding involvement in the regional drug trade is an example of how street gangs can jump into transnational organized crime if the conditions are right (in Panama’s case, these conditions being geography, institutional weakness, and corruption).

Given Panama’s important role in transnational drug trafficking — and the apparently growing participation of local street gangs — President Varela’s concerns and appeals to the international community to assist in combating the problem are warranted.