In Panama, women in the sex trade are exposed to monetary and sexual extortion by corrupt police officers. But a new prosecution system has gone some way to reducing this abuse of power.

“I was raped. There was a captain who always came looking for me. He would take me in his patrol car to the Ancón hilltop [a Panama City neighborhood], and we would have sexual intercourse. After a while, it became this kind of game for him, to come pick me up and have sex with me.”

In her early 50s, Amparo* stays composed, but a slight tremble in her voice suggests stress.

“Once, five police officers took me there, and all five made me have sex with them. That was back in 2005 or 2006.”

*This article is part of an investigation on various types of extortion in Central America and was carried out by InSight Crime as a joint project with the Global Initiative. See the rest of the series here.

Now an activist with an association called Independent Women Fighting for Their Rights (Mujeres Independientes Luchando por sus Derechos — MILD), Amparo is dedicated to exposing police abuses against sex workers in Panama City.

“The police would tell you: give us 20, 30 or 50 bucks and we’ll leave you alone.”

And as she and her younger colleague Juliana* talk in a small church where we sit, the contours of a well-oiled extortion system begin to emerge.

“Around the 5 de Mayo Plaza, they would bring you to the Calidonia police substation and demand between $30 and $50 to let you go. If they got you on the Vía España Avenue, they would detain you at the Bella Vista substation and charge between $200 and $300,” Juliana said.

Often, the women were obliged to perform free sexual services to avoid arbitrary and prolonged detention.

The Uniform Says Enough

A nationwide survey of 317 sex workers published in December 2017 shows the scale of the problem. The majority of respondents claimed to have been extorted by security forces, and nearly half said that officers requested free sexual services from them. A third said that they had been threatened with a firearm, according to Women With Dignity and Rights  of Panama (Mujeres con Dignidad y Derechos de Panamá — MDDP), the association which published the survey.

“The uniform says enough,” says Gladys Murillo, president of the MDDP, to describe police intimidation.

Echoing her companions’ comments, Murillo described extortion fees that would differ depending on the area where the sex workers operated. Corrupt officers, she says, would stake out prostitutes until a client arrived. They would then intervene, threatening to detain the sex worker and blackmailing the client caught in the embarrassing — but not illegal — situation.

Yet Murillo also says that the extortion of this vulnerable community has recently dropped.

“Arbitrary detentions no longer occur like they used to.”

Change is partly the result of recent concerted efforts by the sex worker community to draw public attention to police abuses. Annual marches have been carried out and have received significant media coverage. In particular, a protest in June 2017 ended with the arrest of 13 protesters who received support from the Ombudsman’s Office of Panama (Defensoría del Pueblo). The MDDP has also joined with a network of non-profits across Latin America in denouncing ongoing abuses by regional security forces.

But much of the improvement also lies in Panama’s judicial reform and the implementation of an oral-based prosecutorial system (Sistema Penal Acusatorio – SPA). Under the new system, a person arrested must be presented before a judge within 24 hours who decides on the legality of the detention and the charges brought against the detainee. This process, implemented in Panama City in September 2016, created a shield against abusive police detention.

“These definitely don’t happen anymore,” a source from the Office for Detainees of the Ombudsman’s Office of Panama (Oficina de Privados de Libertad de la Defensoría del Pueblo de Panamá) said on abusive detentions.

Associations such as the MDDP and the MILD have carried out campaigns to remind autonomous sex workers that their profession is not a crime and that no judge can legalize their detention on these charges. Without the threat of being unjustifiably locked up for days, sex workers are better equipped to resist extortion, and police officers have steered away from arresting them simply for exercising their profession.

After years of police abuse, Amparo said that the that extortion of sex workers has dropped considerably, thanks to the recent judicial reform and increased public attention on the issue.

But, Juliana says with resignation: “It still goes on.”

*The names of some interviewees have been changed.

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