Panama's intelligence sources have identified four major Mexican cartels operating in that country, another sign of the widening reach of Mexico's criminals across the region, and of Panama's importance as a regional depot for drug traffickers.
According to Panama's La Prensa, these groups are: the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, the Zetas and the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO). Intelligence reports and officials have confirmed that these cartels operate in the country, says the paper, using it as an operational base to transport cocaine to Mexico and the United States.
One sign of this is recent violence committed in the style of Colombian or Mexican hired assassins, Panamanian prosecutor Geomara Guerra told La Prensa, with dead bodies dismembered or showing signs of torture. Officials believe the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas may be killing off rivals in the country as they move more deeply into Central America.
In 2012, then-Attorney General and current Supreme Court judge Jose Ayu Prado said 100 Mexican prisoners held in Panama were accused of membership in drug cartels. Alleged Mexican criminals arrested in Panama include 16 Sinaloa Cartel members caught in 2007 with 19.5 tons of cocaine, the newspaper says. Members of the Zetas and the Juarez Cartel have also been caught moving cocaine through the country.
In 2010, jailed capo Edgar Valdez Villareal, alias "La Barbie," also testified that the BLO moved cocaine through Panama to Mexico.
InSight Crime Analysis
The evidence collected by La Prensa is another indication that the connection is deepening between Mexican organized crime and Panama, an important hand-off point for north-bound drug shipments, as well as a traditional money laundering hotspot.
Earlier this year, an alleged link between Colombia's Rastrojos and Mexican Cartels was arrested in Panama, and more recently, Colombian officials intercepted a FARC-owned cocaine shipment allegedly destined for Sinaloa Cartel contacts in Panama. Mexican capos have also been reported to do business in Panama, including captured Gulf Cartel boss Andres Vieda Duque, alias "El Duque," and La Barbie. The cousin of Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli was arrested in Mexico and charged with money laundering in 2009, but was later absolved.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Panama
The Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas have shifted much of their operations into Central America, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). One major battleground is Guatemala, but the Sinaloa Cartel also operates in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and the Zetas in Belize.