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Panama Amnesty: No Lasting Solution to Gang Problem

PANAMA / 1 AUG 2014 BY KYRA GURNEY EN

Panama's Minister of Security has indicated the government may extend a one-month amnesty period that has led to the disarming of over 1000 gang members, although the program is not a lasting solution to the country's gang problem.

More than 1,100 gang members have taken advantage of the amnesty period to disarm and begin the process of reintegrating into society, reported Panama America. Although the amnesty -- which was announced by incoming President Juan Carlos Varela on July 1 -- technically ends today, Minister of Public Security Rodolfo Aguilera Franceschi stated that gang members who wanted to join the program after August 1 would still be accepted.

To carry out the reintegration program, the Varela administration created five commissions aimed at disarming 4,500 gang members, reported La Estrella. The gang members are expected to enroll in technical courses to obtain jobs.   

InSight Crime Analysis

In recent years, Panama has seen an explosion of gang activity. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of gang members more than quadrupled from 1,385 to an estimated 7,500. According to a recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report (pdf), there were around 355 different gangs operating in Panama in 2013.

Given Panama's strategic location as a transshipment point on northern-bound drug routes from Colombia, there is a risk street gangs could eventually make the leap to more sophisticated organized criminal groups and even transnational organizations. InSight Crime field research has indicated some gangs already work with Colombian transnational criminal groups, guarding drug shipments in Panama City and Colon. According to La Estrella, transnational organizations also pay Panamanian gangs to transport drug shipments.

The one-month amnesty period appears to have had considerable success in facilitating the disarmament of gangs. So far, close to 15 percent of the country's gang members have taken advantage of the program, and that figure will likely increase if the amnesty period is extended. There is however little likelihood that the disarmament will provide a lasting solution to the country's gang problem. According to a report from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung foundation, many gang members are hesitant to take advantage of government programs because they tend to be temporary, whereas gang activity provides a sustained source of income. 

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

Elsewhere in the region, authorities have implemented alternative solution to gang violence with limited success. El Salvador negotiated a gang truce in 2012, which initially lead to a drop in homicides but was ultimately declared a failure when gang violence returned to previous levels. Belize created a gang truce program in 2011 that provided work opportunities for gang members, but the program was terminated when funding ran out in 2012. 

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