Authorities in Panama disbanded a suspected Sinaloa Cartel cell, drawing attention to the underworld dynamics of this key transit country in the illegal drug trade.
National Police Director Omar Pinzón said that the presumed Sinaloa Cartel members were arrested in an operation in the Juan Díaz sector of Panama City, Radio Panamá reported.
Two men and one woman were detained, all of Mexican nationality. Security forces also seized 421 kilograms of a substance believed to be cocaine, which were hidden in three vehicles.
Pinzón said there has been a 60 percent rise in drug production in neighboring Colombia, and that authorities are "capturing Colombian citizens on a daily basis," TVN Noticias reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
It is not unusual for Sinaloa Cartel members to be apprehended in Panama -- the group has been operating in the country for years, along with numerous other transnational criminal organizations. Mexican cartels have been pushing their way closer to the source of the South American cocaine trade, and four of them were believed to be active in Panama in 2013.
Panama's strategic location on the Central American isthmus has made the country a key drug trafficking corridor, and it has traditionally been under Colombia's sphere of influence. Members of Marxist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), most notably the 57th Front, are known to traffic drugs into Panama and use it as a refuge.
While Mexican and Colombian cartels typically appoint fellow nationals to carry out the more important tasks in transnational trafficking, these groups also tend to sub-contract small local gangs to transport drugs and act as hired guns.
Nevertheless, there have been recent indications that these local gangs have been consolidating into sophisticated structures that play a more significant role in transnational crime. Smaller groups are supposedly fusing into larger blocs, as gang structures called "oficinas de cobro" cut out the middle man to work directly with transnational organized crime. The biggest gang blocs in Panama are controlled by the two rival gangs "Calor Calor" and "Bagdad."
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Panama
According to a recent regional security report (pdf) by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation, Panama's largest criminal groups control the drug transport routes in the country. Calor Calor and Bagdad also both reportedly have cells in Costa Rica, although it is unclear just how high up their involvement in the drug trade goes.
Despite reports suggesting Panama's homegrown criminal groups are becoming comparable to Colombian or Mexican organizations, it is unlikely that they have reached such levels of sophistication as to organize their own trafficking networks. It's more likely that Panama's largest gangs are stepping up their role in domestic drug transport while remaining under the service of Colombian and Mexican cells, such as the one captured this week.