Authorities in Panama are asking the United States for assistance in investigating an international arms trafficking network that may have included the participation of former security officials, raising questions about the country’s role in the regional arms trafficking trade.
Prosecutors in Panama have asked for two US judicial assistants to participate in an international arms trafficking investigation that implicates several former officials from the Central American nation’s Public Security Directorate (Dirección Institucional de Asuntos de Seguridad Pública - DIASP), La Prensa reported October 12.
Authorities are investigating nine individuals, eight of whom are former DIASP officials, for their alleged role in importing 100 weapons into Panama after they were purchased in the United States, according to a number of press releases from the Attorney General’s Office.
The investigation was recently extended six months to “analyze” whether or not the head of the DIASP, Ovidio Fuentes, was also involved in the network, La Prensa reported. Fuentes has been temporarily suspended from the DIASP while the investigation continues.
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So far, prosecutors have been able to recover at least 40 of the weapons imported into Panama from the United States, including an AR-15 assault rifle and various grenades, according to La Prensa. The network reportedly purchased the weapons for between $149 and $540 each in the United States before they were sold to unidentified local merchants in Panama at a marked up value between $5,500 and $7,500.
Prosecutors allege the weapons were purchased between 2016 and 2017. However, the weapons reportedly had permits listed for 2012, suggesting that this information was altered by DIASP officials, who are responsible for providing the proper permits and certifications for imported firearms, according to a 2012 firearms law. The 2012 law also says that only authorized security personnel can import firearms into Panama.
InSight Crime Analysis
The recent arms trafficking investigation in Panama raises more questions than answers. The country has long been known as a money laundering haven that criminal groups throughout the region, including Colombia’s notorious Medellín Cartel, have used to wash billions in criminal proceeds, rather than a final destination for illegally trafficked firearms.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking
Guns, especially from the United States, remain a driving force behind violence in Latin America. But Panama consistently has one of the region’s lowest homicide rates, suggesting that the firearms imported into the country may have been moving on to another country.
Indeed, Central America has long been a key source and transit region for illegal firearms moving to countries in South America, such as Colombia, according to a 2006 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on arms trafficking in Colombia. In particular, the UNODC found that Panama acts as the "principal port of entry" for illicit firearms from the United States and Central America that are traveling into the Andean nation due to its free port status and geographically strategic location bordering Colombia.