Panama President: ‘70% Homicides Linked to Organized Crime’

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Panama’s president recently claimed that the majority of murders in the country are linked to drug trafficking and organized crime. But is this figure based on reliable and transparently presented data, or is it just political spin? 

“In this country 70 percent of homicides are linked to drug trafficking and organized crime,” Panama President Juan Carlos Varela was quoted as saying by local TV station TN8.  

The comments follow a series of highly public murders in recent weeks, including a shooting death inside a busy mall on February 14. 

In a press conference (see video below) Varela assured Panamanians that rival gangs and organized crime groups were responsible for recent violence and that ordinary citizens had nothing to fear. The president said his administration would address the situation by educating youth about the dangers of gang life and bringing the government’s “full weight” against gang leaders.  

President Juan Carlos Varela press conference video courtesy of La Prensa

Meanwhile, former security minister José Raúl Mulino — currently under investigation for corruption- — blamed recent violence on Varela and his alleged failure to put forth a national security plan, Panamá América reported. 

InSight Crime Analysis

In their attempts to further their own agendas, Varela and Mulino have each put forth problematic narratives of Panama’s security situation. 

SEE ALSO: InDepth: Homicides

By saying that the majority of Panama’s homicides are linked to drugs and organized crime, the implication of Varela’s comment is that much of Panama’s insecurity is due to gang-on-gang violence. Presumably, this statement should be based on the number of violent crime convictions involving defendents linked to gangs or organized crime. However, it’s not clear if that’s where the president got his figures from. 

Meanwhile, Mulino’s claim that a single president is to blame for Panama’s violence is colored by his grudge against an administration that fired and is now investigating him for corruption. 

Both fail acknowledge that Panama’s 2015 homicide rates was 493, or 138 less than the year prior. Over the last three years, the murder rate has fallen to 12.4 per 100,000 residents from 17.3 per 100,000 residents, according to a TN8 report citing government statistics

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Panama

A more productive dialogue would put these recent murders into context in order to determine if they indicate a change in Panama’s security situation or an anomaly amongst a general downward trend. At the very least, Panama’s executive branch could make the methodology behind their analysis of homicide data widely available to the public. 

Unfortunately, this kind of transparent approach to homicide and security statistics is rare in Latin America, particularly in some Central American nations where crime and violence is endemic and security policy highly politicized.

Ultimately, the tendency among Latin America’s politicians to assert that the majority of violence within a country is due to “organized crime” — without sharing the methodology for how they came to this conclusion — is arguably an overly simplistic way of describing a more nuanced problem. It downplays the major role that the region’s elites play in collaborating with and maintaining organized crime networks. In many ways, it is arguably more politically expedient for Panama’s president to draw attention to “crime-related” homicides, rather than tackling more endemic and politically risky problems such as the role of economic elites in corruption and money laundering

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