Panama’s northern province of Colón, sitting at the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal, is seeing a staggering increase in drug seizures, raising questions about its role in the Central American cocaine pipeline.
On June 6, 1.8 tons of cocaine were seized from a single boat off the coast of Colón in a joint operation with Colombian authorities. In May alone, 22 tons of drugs were intercepted in Colón, taking seizures from January to May 2021 to almost 50 tons.
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The number puts Panama well on its way to beating its 2020 drug seizure record of 85 tons.
Panamanian authorities have praised the number of seizures, stating that drug traffickers are moving smaller amounts of drugs per shipment as a response to increased state vigilance.
InSight Crime Analysis
The province of Colón is currently experiencing the consequences of several important shifts within Panama and its role in the broader cocaine trade.
First, the Caribbean route has become more popular for drug traffickers, bringing in increasing amounts from Colombia straight to Panama and onward. The Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, a drug trafficking group also known as the Urabeños, have re-opened certain Caribbean routes that make Panama an obvious destination.
"Typically, traffickers favor launching boats from the Colombian city of Turbo, off the Gulf of Urabá, to the province of Colón in Panama," Grisel Bethancourt, an independent journalist in Panama, told InSight Crime.
In September 2020, InSight Crime reported on a similar increase in cocaine seizures in Bocas del Toro, an archipelago northwest of Colón.
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Second, Panama’s own gangs are growing in sophistication and capacity. Its largest criminal group, Bagdad, has evolved from a network of loosely affiliated gangs hired to move drugs through Panama into a more sophisticated unit, with the manpower to move larger quantities of drugs, the firepower to defend its turf and the logistics to launder significant amounts of money. Its rival, Calor Calor, is not far behind.
However, Bagdad has come under pressure, most recently from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), with dozens of members arrested and front businesses shut down in April. Internal rivalries among Bagdad’s members have also accounted for regular homicides in Panama, starting with a prison massacre that left 15 dead in December 2019.
The collateral damage for these new criminal dynamics has been high. The province accounted for 43 percent of all murders committed in Panama in April 2021 and saw a 21 percent year-on-year increase in homicide from January to March.
Third, given Panama’s ability to dispatch drugs to Europe, European drug groups have moved in. Last December, El País reported that Spanish drug traffickers were reactivating a route that had been used in the 1990s to move significant quantities of cocaine from Colón and other Panamanian ports to Spain and Portugal.