Authorities in Panama have linked the mayor of a seemingly sleepy seaside town to a transnational drug trafficking organization, suggesting homegrown Panamanian groups may be deepening their role in the drug trade with help from local officials.
On September 24, Panamanian security forces arrested 11 people linked to a drug trafficking organization operating in the town of La Villa de Los Santos on Panama's Pacific coast as well as the Pacific province of Chiriquí near Panama's northern border with Costa Rica.
According to a press release from Panama's Attorney General's Office, the group transported cocaine from Colombia north along Panama's Pacific coast.
Authorities arrested the leader of the suspected trafficking ring along with several of his associates, including a number of public officials in La Villa de Los Santos.
The operation saw the arrest of Mayor Eudocio Pérez, who according to La Estrella is also a high-ranking official of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Democrático - PRD), as well as the mayor's assistant and two police officers, La Prensa reported.
According to the Attorney General's office, security forces seized 2.1 metric tons of drugs, two machine guns, nearly $1 million in cash and 18 vehicles, four of which had false bottoms presumably used to transport drugs.
(Video c/o Panama Attorney General's Office)
InSight Crime Analysis
Panama's strategic location has historically made it a key transit point for drugs and contraband exiting South America and entering Central America. And in the past, local security forces and politicians have engaged in drug trafficking activities. However, the dismantled network's alleged ties to a small-town coastal mayor suggest homegrown Panamanian trafficking groups may be increasingly counting on the complicity of local officials to help them handle the growing flow of cocaine through Central America spurred by Colombia's cocaine boom.
SEE ALSO: Panama News and Profile
The increasing amount of drugs has likely come with an influx of cash for Panamanian trafficking organizations. And these crime groups may be using some of that dirty money to buy off local officials who have influence in strategic trafficking areas.
Panama's Pacific coast is particularly attractive to international drug smugglers due to increased pressure on Atlantic trafficking routes originating in Colombia. Traffickers have begun to shift to using Pacific maritime routes to send cocaine north, a trend that has been evidenced by huge seizures in Pacific Colombian port cities like Tumaco. The Panamerican Highway -- an important overland trafficking route -- also runs along Panama's Pacific coast, giving crime groups another reason to seek to co-opt officials in this area of the country.