Throughout the isthmus underworld, an island is worth more than 1,000 kilometers of road. It is not surprising then that Panama’s islands have few authorities and many traffickers. 

One smuggler, who I can only identify as Nico, says he has moved illegal drugs through his remote island area five times. Each time, he chose an island where he would store the drugs, dug a hole, then set out to sea.

The drugs would arrive at night, when he and two others, who’d packed but a jacket for the cold, would use a GPS to guide them to the spot in the middle of the ocean for the drop off. The crews would barely exchange words as the drugs pass from one boat to the other.

This is the first of three reports on “Narco-Islands.” See original in La Estrella here. 

To avoid detection, the return trip was much slower: two hours to cover ground that had taken 15 minutes. There, they returned to the hole. The mangroves are the perfect place with their clear, soft ground. After five or six days, they repeated the operation, but they were the ones passing the drugs to the next boat.

“We are what they call mules,” explained Nico.

For every trip they receive $5,000 – 10 times what he can earn in a month working in the village shop.

Thousands of Islands

In Central America, there are more than 100,000 islands and many of them are used to stash cocaine and store fuel for traffickers. And while authorities have installed radars to detect flights, checkpoints on all the roads, and hundreds of customs offices, none of these can stop the hundreds of tons of cocaine that authorities estimate go through these islands on their way to the United States. 

The history of trafficking via islands is rich. Legendary Medellin Cartel leader Carlos Lehder purchased Norman’s Cay in the Bahamas in the 1970s. Fittingly, the island was named in honor of a sixteenth century English pirate who used it as a hideout for his rum trafficking business. In the 1980s, under Lehder’s watch, Norman’s Cay became the dispatch point for three of every four tons of cocaine that were consumed in the United States.

At the time, Lehder charged $10,000 dollars per kilo to his friends in the Medellin Cartel to arrange shipments via the island. Legend has it that, once his activities were exposed in 1982, that Lehder dropped leaflets on the Bahamian capital Nassau that read: “DEA go home.” Some of the leaflets supposedly had $100 bills attached to them.

When Lehder started, he never imagined that it would be so simple to use the island as a logistical support for his illegal activities. But others have since followed his lead, and narco-islands have multiplied: From San Andres, the main dispatch point for Colombian drugs, to Corn Island, the hotspot of Nicaragua, the example has repeated itself. The hidden transit points in Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico attest to this. For the authorities, these little enclaves of sand, mangroves and beaches represent a horrific challenge.

narcoislasas graphic

Panama: A Paradise of Islands

Between Colombia and Honduras there are more than 580 nautical miles. The vast amount of space means speedy outboard motor boats known as go-fast boats do not need to enter the 12 nautical miles that are part of Panama. Still, “there have to be some resupply points,” according to Ramon Nonato Lopez, commissioner of the Air and Naval Service Operations (SENAN).

Lopez’s team is responsible for 1,518 islands off the coast of Panama on what is a mission impossible. The SENAN has 8 naval bases, 8 helicopters and 24 boats, which do more than tackle organized crime. They also police illegal fishing, guard natural reserves, and do search and rescue operations. The current government promised to install 19 radars — 10 in the Pacific and 9 in the Caribbean — but so far there has been no progress.

There was a time when the narcos owned some of these islands. Rayo Montaño had three, “the three Marias,” as they are known. The Panamanian authorities seized them from him and his partner, a Colombian named Jose Nelson Urrego, and turned them into air and naval bases, taking advantage of the already assembled infrastructure.

“The islands are very vulnerable; most of them are isolated,” said Carlos Chavarria, mayor of Portobelo, on the Arriba Coast of Colon, one of the most active areas.

Still, Panama is the country that seizes the most drugs of any Central American country. So far this year, 14 tons of cocaine have been seized in Panama, much of them in areas like this.

Poverty Equals Opportunity

Although only 47 of the Gunayala islands are inhabited, there is an island for every day of the year. The locals, the indigenous Guna people, do not cultivate coca or process drugs. But a good part of the population lives from them.

They have benefited from geography: the land that the conquistadors once took over is now the envy of modern pirates, who look for a place to hide, to cool off, or to evade the police. This area has become an indispensable enclave for drug trafficking, away from the eyes of the police and surrounded by a population eager to catch the crumbs left in its wake.

Sixteen years ago, the islands were declared a zone of extreme poverty. At the time, a kilo of cocaine fetched from sea was said to cost between $100 – $150, a twentieth of the normal price. And the islands began to form part of the Central American drug circuit. Today, authorities say they have stacks of $100 bills that they have seized. I tried to speak to one of the Guna who was supposedly involved in transporting drugs in the community, but he demanded $6,000 for the interview.

Here, authorities do not bother with small statistics. Seizures are measured in the hundreds of kilos. Although he does not have the exact number, SENAN Commissioner Lopez says it is “the hottest” part of the Panamanian islands. The trip from Puerto Obaldia on the Colombian border to Gunayala in the far north takes eight hours in a go-fast boat, he says. The area is full of rivers and uninhabited islands, and is strategically positioned for hiding during the day, stashing drugs in the mangroves, or simply stocking up on fuel.

During my visit, authorities seized a boat with two people and ten sacks, each containing between 25 and 30 kilos of cocaine. By the next day, the region’s fishermen were ready to “fish” for what others might have thrown overboard when they realized they would be captured. They know that whatever they find will be repurchased by other mules from the Arriba Coast.

*This is the first of three reports on “Narco-Islands” that was produced as part of a project by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) for which InSight Crime has collaborated. See original in La Estrella here.