Panama Cracks Down on Main Street Gang

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Police operations are cracking down on one of Panama’s two main rival gangs at a time when the local groups are becoming increasingly involved in transnational organized crime.

Panamanian authorities have allegedly arrested two leaders of the powerful “Bagdad” gang named Ariel Isidro Rodríguez, alias “Ariel Monstruo,” and Javier Armando Guevara, alias “Fulo Barney,” Crítica reported.

Security forces detained more than 20 people and seized drugs, pistols and ammunition, Panama’s National Police (PNP) reported. The anti-gang operation took place in the Arraiján and La Chorrera districts in West Panama province. Arraiján and La Chorrera have been disputed territory for the country’s two biggest gangs: Bagdad and “Calor Calor.”

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Ten of those arrested were wanted on “gang membership” charges linked to murder, theft and personal injuries. The suspects also have criminal histories that include financial and drug-related crimes, the Public Ministry reported.

InSight Crime Analysis

This seemingly important blow to one of Panama’s key underworld actors comes at a time in which local gangs are stepping up their participation in regional organized crime.

While for years Panama’s street gangs mainly engaged in petty crime, they have increasingly been getting involved in larger-scale activities. Big international players, including drug traffickers from Mexico and Colombia, have been subcontracting youth gangs to carry out hits, transport drugs and provide intelligence and security. Gangs are paid in cash, weapons and drugs that they use to set up their own microtrafficking operations.

In addition, hundreds of youths could be involved in competing groups known as “tumbadores,” which steal drug shipments from larger traffickers. To “tumbar” is to cut or knock down.

Another key change in local dynamics has been the fusion of smaller gangs into two main rival groups — Bagdad and Calor Calor. There are indications that these blocs are acting as “oficinas de cobro,” or collection offices, which collaborate directly with transnational organizations.

Since his election in 2014, President Juan Carlos Varela’s government has been tackling the escalating gang problem through the amnesty and job training program “Secure Neighborhoods” (Barrios Seguros), with mixed results. The government has made it clear that the gang members who refuse to join the program will face an “iron fist” policy, know in Spanish as “mano dura.”

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