Panamanian authorities say the FARC rebel group worked with a trafficking ring with operations in Panama, pointing to permanent guerrilla presence in the country, and to its importance for the rebels' business and logistics networks.
Javier Carabello, Panama's top anti-drugs prosecutor, told Prensa that the investigation into the trafficking ring began when its operations were discovered in Costa Rica in 2010. Since then, 55 alleged members have been arrested in Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia and Nicaragua.
In November 2011, Costa Rican authorities warned their Panamanian counterparts that the group was making an illicit cash transfer bound for their country. Since then, Panama has arrested two of its own citizens and six Colombians in connection with the case.
The prosecutor said that the group was supplied with cocaine by the 30th Front of the FARC, and that it used land as well as maritime routes to send the drug to Mexico, trafficking it overland through Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.
The group's leader, Colombian national Walter Renteria Cuero, was in Panama with two lieutenants in March 2012, but evaded arrest. Renteria was murdered in Cali, Colombia a few days later and his lieutenants were arrested in Costa Rica.
InSight Crime Analysis
This case demonstrates Panama's importance as a route for trafficking Colombian cocaine north to Central America, as the only land link between the two. The country is also logistically crucial for the FARC, whose 57th Front has camps over the border.
The rebels are attracted by the relative weakness of the Panamanian authorities -- the country has no military -- especially in the lawless Darien Gap region between the two countries. This allows the FARC to operate in relative peace; two camps destroyed in a recent joint operation were larger and more permanent than those now found in Colombia.· In Colombia camps are often small and transient, as the rebels keep on the move to avoid air raids by the military.
The 30th Front are major players in the drug trade, based in Valle del Cauca province on Colombia's Pacific coast. The size and scope of the organization whose members were arrested across four countries indicate that the FARC chose a powerful partner to traffic its cocaine. The loss of this partnership is likely to be a setback for the rebel group, which still relies heavily on drug revenues despite having diversified its income, most notably with illegal mining.