Panama's Attorney General has called for more funds to combat the nation's 201 gangs, highlighting how the issue of street gangs is not limited to the violence-ridden Northern Triangle countries and could spread across Central America.
Speaking to the country's National Assembly, Attorney General Ana Belfon highlighted the growth of the gang problem in recent years and need for funds to tackle it after the $144 million budget she had requested for 2014 was cut to $74.2 million, reported Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario.
According to Belfon, gangs have spread throughout the country and have "taken over" second city Colon, reported La Estrella. A 2010 Ministry of Public Security (MINSEG) report stated the country harboured 245 gangs, a figure 22 percent higher than the 201 cited by Belfon, which was originally published earlier this year by the country's crime statistics body SIEC.
Last year, Panama's Ministry of Public Security estimated that up to 7,500 youths are integrated into the country's gangs.
Earlier this year, Panama's National Police director Julio Molto announced a series of operations would be planned across the country with the aim of starting a "war" against the country's gangs.
InSight Crime Analysis
According to MINSEG, gang activity first emerged in Panama in 1989 and 1990, and nearly tripled between 2005 and 2010. While less prevalent than in other Central American nations, it is an evolving phenomenon that may be exacerbated by the links between some local groups and transnational drug trafficking organizations. A possible explanation for the decline in the number of gangs between 2010 and 2013, assuming this is not just an issue of different recording methodologies, is that some gangs have consolidated, co-opting or destroying smaller rivals -- a common pattern throughout the region.
While the gangs are spread throughout the country, they are especially concentrated in the Panama City Metropolitan Area, and Colon -- the country's largest coastal port and a free trade zone, which is a hub of criminal opportunities with thriving drug and contraband trafficking sectors.