Interpol has warned that drug traffickers could capitalize on the expansion of the Panama Canal, in a reminder of the crucial but often underreported role of maritime shipping in the global drug trade.
"The recent widening of the Panama Canal brings new opportunities for the country, but it also opens up new opportunities for criminals," said Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock, who was speaking at the inauguration of the International Police Regional Conference of the Americas in Panama City.
The $5.2 billion expansion of the canal, which was inaugurated last month, has doubled the canal's capacity for shipping containers. A significant increase on the 6 percent of world trade that already passes through the canal is now expected.
Speaking at the same event, Panama police chief Omar Pinzon said the police were ready for the new challenges this increase presents.
"Panama is an enormous platform for global trade and, for this reason, it cannot be ruled out that the ships that pass through the canal will be used by criminal bands, but we are prepared for whatever is coming," Pinzon said.
InSight Crime Analysis
While it is the narco submarines, clandestine drug flights and ingenious drug mule techniques that tend to grab the headlines, the less glamorous maritime freight trade is an essential part of the global drug trade.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) Global Container Control Program, around 90 percent of all world trade involves maritime containers, but of the 500 million shipped every year, less than 2 percent are inspected.
These are winning odds for Latin America's drug traffickers, especially those trying to reach distant markets such as Europe or Asia. And it is not only drug traffickers that take advantage, but also smuggling rings that move contraband and counterfeit goods.
For authorities around the world, trying to reduce these odds has proven difficult and costly, especially as drug traffickers develop ever more innovative ways to hide drugs among legal merchandise.
"The global dependency on maritime trade, combined with not only sophisticated concealment methods employed by narco-traffickers or counterfeiters, but also diverse trafficking routes, make successful interdiction and intervention difficult," states the UNODC.
Panama is one of 20 countries around the world to establish a Joint Port Control Unit with the UNODC, and over the last seven years the unit has seized 25 tons of drugs hidden in containers, reported EFE.
However, even with international help, the sheer scale of maritime traffic through the canal means the Panamanian authorities face a near impossible task. And as Interpol points out, the more trade that passes through, the greater the odds are stacked in favor of drug traffickers.