A sudden rise in smuggling into Panama’s largest prison complex has challenged the success of recent security reforms inside penitentiaries, as well as displayed the diversity and persistence of intra-prison smuggling tactics.
On November 12, at least two drones dropped various packages into the connected prisons of La Joya and La Nueva Joya, with guards seizing six that contained, among other things, marijuana and a cell phone. On November 15, another drone dropped pistol parts and eight packages of drugs into the complex’s third prison, La Joyita. On November 22, yet another drone launched two packages of “crispi” towards La Joya, a combination drug of marijuana and coca leaves popular in Panama.
These high-tech attempts occurred alongside more basic ploys, such as the eight contraband-containing briefcases found hidden outside one pavilion on November 16, the five packages containing revolvers and drugs that were thrown over the prison fence on November 19 and the four cell phones seized from visitors attempting to smuggle them in on November 22.
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These six attempts in 10 days all lead to seizures, but it remains unclear whether any packages slipped through. La Joya prison complex is infamous for the massacre that took place there in December 2019, when one gang faction attacked another using assault rifles and high-end pistols, killing 15 and wounding 11.
A subsequent investigation in January 2020 asserted that while the prison complex suffered from significant vulnerabilities, the budget for 2020-21 was “sufficient and [that] necessary improvements are imminent”. Two ministers resigned one month later after a high-risk inmate re-escaped the complex.
Since then, not only has La Joya continued to be plagued by escape attempts and the smuggling of weapons, drugs and contraband, but violence has not stopped either. In March, a video surfaced showing prisoners taking cover during a shootout that prison officials say was caused by fighting between rival gangs. In April, another shooting wounded two.
InSight Crime Analysis
Contraband smuggling is an inescapable reality in most Central American prisons, yet these continuous breaches are an embarrassment for Panama at a time when its prison security is alleged to be tighter than ever.
Drones were last reported to have been used to smuggle contraband into La Joya in September 2019, in what seems to have been a first for Panamanian prison officials. The three recent drone cases will likely not be the last, however, since their tactical asymmetry is making them increasingly popular among criminal groups.
The cases also reflect the increasing technological gap between smugglers and authorities in La Joya prison complex, which despite housing over 60 percent of Panama’s prison population has few metal detectors and scanners and inconsistent signal jamming systems. That said, standard contrabandist techniques remain effective given the penitentiary lacks basic protective mechanisms, such as watchtowers, lights and security cameras, while dilapidated roads slow patrols outside the fence.
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Nor have prison employees always been searched, though this is gradually changing in order to better tackle the corruption seen in other Panamanian prisons. Guards generally tend to be understaffed and overworked, with only 800 manning Panama’s entire overcrowded prison system of nearly 18,000 inmates, according to a government statement last January. For that reason, there is little permanent guard presence inside La Joya complex and inmates move largely without supervision.
This facilitates prison violence between and within Panama’s two main criminal federations, Bagdad and Calor Calor, such as the 2019 massacre that occurred between two Bagdad factions.
Furthermore, the lack of inmate security, let alone opportunity for rehabilitation, may exacerbate the environment by forcing inmates to join gangs during their incarceration. This then perpetuates smuggling, since authorities report smuggling at La Joya is often perpetuated by former inmates who begin supplying their former cellmates upon their release.