Coca crops and processing laboratories have been discovered in Panama for the second time this year, suggesting that cultivation is now creeping across three of Colombia's borders and into neighboring countries.
Panamanian border authorities discovered and destroyed eight hectares of coca consisting of 54,500 plants in the country's Darien province. The cultivation was found three kilometers from the Colombian border, reported news agency EFE.
According to Frank Abrego, head of the National Border Service (SENAFRONT), authorities also found nurseries with another 20,000 coca plants ready for transplanting, 15 shelters and camps capable of housing between 10 to 15 people. According to the Associated Press, authorities also destroyed one coca processing laboratory, while Telemetro reported that two laboratories were found.
The Associated Press reported that unknown aggressors shot at authorities as they neared the site, before fleeing into the jungle.
InSight Crime Analysis
The recently discovered coca plantation was much larger than the one found in June, which consisted of two acres and just 4,495 plants, suggesting that cultivation, which has already crossed over from Colombia into Ecuador and Venezuela, has now not only reached Panama but could be expanding within the country.
Small scale coca cultivation has been discovered numerous times in the Ecuadorean border region, most recently in April when authorities burned coca plants 100 meters from the shared border with Colombia. A rare coca find far from the border in Ecuador in 2012 suggests that production may be becoming more established within the country. InSight Crime field research uncovered evidence that coca cultivation has also begun to cross the border into Venezuela, spreading out from the Colombian coca cultivation hotspot of Norte de Santander.
Colombia's three border regions have one thing in common -- the presence of guerrilla groups. The guerrillas, who exert control over much of Colombia's coca cultivation, move back and forth over the borders, using neighboring countries to escape the attentions of the Colombian army.
The Panama border region is dominated by the FARC's 57th Front, which is heavily involved in international cocaine trafficking and uses the thickly forested Darien Gap as an operational base, making it probable that the FARC had a hand in the crops recently discovered.
SEE ALSO: FARC, Peace and Criminalization
If the latest planting is indeed linked to the FARC, it runs counter to Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli's claims earlier in July that Panama had driven the FARC out of the region during his time in office.