Two key players in Colombia's Pacific coast drug trade with links to Buenaventura gang La Empresa have become the latest Colombians to be arrested in Panama, highlighting the country's role as a popular logistical hub for international drug traffickers.
In a joint operation, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Colombian anti-narcotics police arrested the two brothers, Edgar and Ever Bustamante Riascos, in Panama City on charges of sending some three tons of cocaine to Costa Rica, reported El Tiempo.
The brothers are leading members of the Bustamente crime clan, who police say have been involved in trafficking drugs and laundering money in the Colombian port city of Buenaventura since as far back as the 1990s, reported El Pais.
The clan is also believed to have been among the founders and funders of La Empresa (The Business), a Buenaventura criminal operation composed of a coalition of drug traffickers, former paramilitaries, powerful criminals and corrupt businessmen, and once backed by the Rastrojos criminal group.
Since 2012, La Empresa has been involved in a bitter war for control of regional drug trafficking with the narco-paramilitary group the Urabeños, but the fighting has seen several defections and the breaking of old alliances. According to El Pais, the Bustamentes appear to currently be in conflict with La Empresa.
InSight Crime Analysis
InSight Crime field research earlier this year indicated that by far the most popular method for exporting drugs from the region around Buenaventura was in go-fast boats destined either for Costa Rica or Panama, which could explain the Bustamentes' presence in Panama.
However, Panama is not only important for drug traffickers as a transshipment point. Ever since the days of the Medellin Cartel's alliance with former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, the country has also been a key territory for the logistics and finances of the drug trade.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños Profile
As a hub of international commerce, Panama is a popular meeting point for drug suppliers and buyers, who can disappear easily among the throngs of business travelers. It is also a popular money laundering spot due to its dollarized economy, position as a regional center of finance and trade and its lax regulations.
Panama's role in the drug trade has attracted some of the most powerful traffickers and organizations in the business. Just days before the capture of the Bustamentes, authorities arrested demobilized paramilitary-turned-drug trafficker Armando Perez Betancourt, known as "the Monster of Catatumbo," in Panama. Senior figures in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Urabeños, such as Anayibe Rojas Valderrama, alias "Sonia," and Francisco Morelo Peñata, alias "El Negro Sarley," have also been known to operate out of Panama.