Recent murder statistics from Panama reveal that the most violent areas of the country coincide with those where gang presence is strongest.
New data from the National Police's Anti-Gang Unit reveals that there are currently 204 gangs in the country, with the most concentrated in the provinces of Panama, Colón and Chiriquí, Metrolibre reported. The province of Panama includes Panama City and San Miguelito district.
Metrolibre told InSight Crime that the 2016 figures have been corroborated by the Special Gang Unit of the Attorney General's Office.
Panama province reportedly has 119 groups, while Colón has 35, Chiriquí has 30, West Panama has 11, Veraguas and Coclé each have four, and Los Santos has one.
These are also the regions that have registered the highest number of homicides over the course of 2016. Panama province has registered 171 murders, Colón has seen 40, and Chiriquí has witnessed 28.
So far this year, Panamanian police have carried out 14 anti-gang operations, with 350 people arrested and indicted on gang-related charges, special gang prosecutor Nahaniel Murgas recently told TVN Canal 2. According to Murgas, these operations have helped reduce the number of gangs in the country.
Murgas said that many of those who have participated in the reinsertion program for gang members known as "Barrios Seguros" ("Secure Neighborhoods") have continued to commit crimes.
The prosecutor also noted, however, that "not all crimes in the country are related to gangs, some involve?the notorious 'tumbes de droga'" (drug robberies).
InSight Crime Analysis
Since President Juan Carlos Varela took office in 2014, his anti-gang policy has brought together strong-arm tactics -- including sweeping arrests and the alleged dismantling of numerous groups -- with the Barrios Seguros rehabilitation program that has reached at least 4,000 youths. But a comparison of today's crime statistics with those from two years ago is not encouraging.
In 2014, the Public Security Ministry estimated that Panama had the exact same number of gangs as the country has now. Indeed, this figure has not varied significantly since 2011, when authorities registered 199 gangs in the country.
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Panama has, however, seen an incremental decline in its homicide rate in recent years. Although the areas where gang presence is strongest coincides with where homicides are highest, the correlation between gang activity and murders is not all that clear-cut, as there are various criminal elements contributing to outbreaks of violence in the country.
While the number of gangs in the country has remained static, the dynamics of these groups are evolving. The gangs are known to be consolidating into two main rival blocs -- Calor Calor and Bagdad -- and may even be taking a more active role in international drug trafficking. The changing nature of local crime was illustrated in the response by authorities to a recent triple homicide in Colón, which was allegedly linked to gang rivalries. Varela harshly criticized whom he described as "benefactors or politicians" supporting Colón's gangs, and said that the government would work to hold local groups in check.