The discovery of Central America's first ever coca plantation in the Panama-Colombia border region could indicate the expansion of FARC activities in an area already used by the guerrilla group for drug trafficking.
In a joint counterdrug operation, Colombian and Panamanian authorities discovered a coca plantation in the remote Panamanian jungle region of Chucurti, near the Caribbean coast and border between the two countries, reported Spanish newspaper El Pais. Officials destroyed 4,495 plants in an approximately two hectare area, an anonymous source from the Panamanian special border police (SENAFRONT) told news agency AFP.
During the operation, authorities also found a small coca processing and cocaine production laboratory, which officials estimated had the capacity to produce around 30 kilograms of cocaine per month.
Although the plantation was the first to be found on Central American territory, the find was "not altogether surprising, since there are plantations on the other side of the border," Director of the Costa Rican Drug Institute (ICD) Carlos Alvarado Valverde told El Pais.
InSight Crime Analysis
The area where the coca plantation was found is located in the dense jungle region known as the Darien Gap, which dominates the Colombia-Panama border and is used as an operational base by the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The 57th Front is heavily involved in international cocaine trafficking, has links with the Urabeños criminal group (which has also expanded its presence in Panama), runs cocaine to Mexican cartels and has been known to use Panama City to finalize drug deals.
The well-documented presence of the FARC in the area makes it unlikely that it is not responsible for or at least complicit in the coca plantation found in Panamanian territory, indicating the group may have expanded local operations to include cultivation as well as trafficking. The expansive and inhospitable nature of the terrain makes it difficult for Colombian and Panamanian security forces to maintain a consistent presence.
Coca cultivation near the Colombian border in Ecuador has also been attributed to the FARC.
Central America is a key link in the cocaine trafficking chain, with an estimated 84 percent of US-bound cocaine passing through the region, according to a 2011 report. Panama itself was the operational center of an international drug trafficking ring broken up in April 2012, believed to have been supplied by the FARC's 30th Front.