Homicides in western Panama have surged in a cycle of revenge killings, as one of the country’s largest gangs struggles to maintain power and control over increasing drug flows.

On May 28, Héctor Tuñón, 26, and his 17-year-old pregnant partner were shot dead in the La Chorrera district by gunmen who drove off in a white car, La Critica reported citing police. They were among the latest in a string of violent deaths that had seen 55 people killed by the end of May in the province of Panama Oeste. This is a significant increase from the 48 murders seen there in all of 2019.

Government officials say that drug trafficking and gang disputes are behind this rise in violence, especially clashes within Bagdad, one of the country’s two main criminal groups. This violence gained national attention in December 2019, when one group of prisoners opened fire on another at La Joyita Prison, leaving at least 12 dead, injuring 11 more and raising doubts about the new administration’s ability to maintain security.

SEE ALSO: Bagdad Profile

Both the victims and their attackers were reportedly part of Bagdad, a franchise which unites smaller local groups under one umbrella to facilitate their participation in the transnational drug trade.

According to En Segundo, prior to the massacre, one of Bagdad’s factions, known as Matar o Morir (Kill or Be Killed – MOM), kept a shipment of drugs for themselves as a declaration of their independence from the franchise. The massacre in La Joyita was a response by Bagdad to punish the defectors, consolidate power and maintain hegemony, said David Mendoza, lead prosecutor for the case, quoted by La Estrella.

But Grisel Bethancourt, a Panamanian journalist focusing on gangs, told InSight Crime that while the massacre itself was motivated by Bagdad seeking to punish MOM, the violence in Panama Oeste runs deeper. “Most of these people are from the same area and run in the same circles,” she said, “so the revenge killing just keeps going.”

In another May incident, four men were brutally murdered and dumped in a field in Arraiján. Three of the four had previously served time La Joyita. Police officials confirmed to La Crítica that the murders were the result of the gang war but did not specify whether the victims belonged to MOM or Bagdad.

The coronavirus restrictions have not helped to reduce the violence. According to local news reports, gang members are taking advantage of the situation to find victims in their own homes. This was the case on May 17 when a 19-year-old was shot dead in a drive-by while at home with his family.

And violence has not stopped inside the La Joyita prison complex, either. In March, a video surfaced showing prisoners taking cover during a shootout that prison officials say was caused by fighting between rival gangs, leaving one wounded. In April, another shooting wounded two, according to reports by Panamá América.

InSight Crime Analysis

Many of the problems currently affecting Panama Oeste appear to stem from the December massacre at La Joyita.

Bagdad’s campaign of retribution against members that try to strike out on their own has exposed how Panama is unprepared for the violence that has accompanied record drug flows, both inside and outside of its prison system.

The fact that the La Joyita massacre was perpetrated in a federal prison with high-caliber, semi-automatic weapons has shown questions about the ability of Panama’s prisons to protect their wards.

SEE ALSO: Lift on Panama Firearms Import Ban May Backfire Amid Homicide Spike

La Joyita is one of the biggest prisons in Panama and holds members of the country’s largest criminal groups, including Calor Calor and Bagdad. Yet it lacks basic measures to protect detainees.

In January, ministers Rolando Mirones and Carlos Romero presented the findings of a government investigation into La Joyita. The investigation found that the prison complex that houses La Joyita, La Joya and La Nueva Joya prisons suffers from a lack of basic protective measures, such as watchtowers, lights and security cameras.

There are no metal detectors or scanners, meaning that while visiting family and loved ones get patted down, prison employees do not get checked at all — opening the door for contraband to be brought in.

These conditions are exacerbated by the fact that Panama’s prisons suffer from an understaffed, overworked security force. With only 800 prison guards for the whole country, the system relies on the national police to help guard prisoners of whom there are too many, given that the prison occupancy rate is at 123 percent, according to The Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research.

The prison complex that includes La Joyita was never meant to be permanent. It was set up in 1996 as a temporary holding center and so lacks standard prison architecture. In fact, according to Mirones, La Joyita does not even meet the standards to be called a prison facility.

There are no guards on the inside of La Joyita and prisoners move around freely without supervision. Officials believe that this is how, under the cover of noisy holidays and celebrations, inmates were able to construct two cement-reinforced cavities inside which they hid arms used in the massacre.

Violence in Panama’s prisons is not a new trend. In looking at data from 2010-16, the UNODC found that the homicide rate in Panama’s prisons was several times higher than the national rate. In fact, government officials admitted that they were aware of many of La Joyita’s vulnerabilities before the massacre but, in 2019, did not have the budget to address “years and years of neglect”.

Though they claimed that the budget for 2020-21 is sufficient and necessary improvements are imminent, Panama’s news sources report that La Joyita continues to be plagued by frequent escape attempts and the flow of weapons, drugs and other contraband into its walls.

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