A binational operation has reportedly disbanded one of the most wanted criminal organizations in Panama, exposing an intricate drug trafficking network that suggests local gangs could be making the leap into transnational organized crime.
On September 6, Panamanian authorities and Colombian police captured one of the most wanted men in Panama, Héctor Moisés Murillo Barberena, who was known by various aliases including "Moi," "El Pulpo," and "El Viejo."
A statement by Colombia's National Police said the 40-year-old was the leader of the gang Kill the Nasty, and had close ties to top figures in the Colombian criminal organization the Urabeños including Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez, alias "Gavilán," and Carlos Antonio Moreno Tuberquia, alias "Nicolas."
According to El Tiempo, authorities established that the Urabeños supplied cocaine to Kill the Nasty by shipping it from Colombia's Pacific coast to Panama. Kill the Nasty would then coordinate with Mexican organizations to move the drugs out of the Central American country, the news outlet reported.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile
During an eight month investigation code-named "Operation Omega," 10 cocaine shipments were intercepted in Panama, totaling over 4 metric tons. Investigators found that illicit cargo entering Panama would be transported to the ports of Balboa, Manzanillo, Colón and Cristóbal, where it was then smuggled to Mexico, the United States and Spain.
Murillo was arrested along with 18 other suspected members of the drug trafficking network. Among those arrested were suspects identified by the aliases "Jeimar" and "Betty" -- Colombian nationals whom the police said provided cocaine to Murillo's organization.
Two Indian citizens were also arrested for allegedly laundering Kill the Nasty's illicit earnings, while a Panamanian identified as "M.M." was accused of bribing authorities to evade controls.
Colombian authorities also reported confiscating two firearms, 14 properties and 150 cars. El Tiempo reported that the group used a car dealership as a front company.
Murillo had previously been detained in Panama in February 2012 for the killing of a teacher during a gang shootout. However, he was released in June 2015 after his detention was declared invalid in a court ruling described as suspcious by Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela.
In 2014, local media reports stated that Kill the Nasty had been dismantled following the capture of the gang's alleged leader Jorge Zurita, alias "Pibe." At the time, authorities said the group was carrying out drug trafficking activities in collaboration with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) guerrilla organization.
InSight Crime Analysis
Murillo's arrest illustrates several aspects of the evolution of local criminal dynamics in Panama. Over the past few years, the country's street gangs, known as "pandillas," have been consolidating into two main rival blocs: "Bagdad" and "Calor Calor." Kill the Nasty is one of a number gangs operating in Panama, and some reports suggest it is a faction of Calor Calor.
SEE ALSO: Calor Calor Profile
The description of Murillo's criminal network appears to confirm previous reports suggesting that Panamanian criminals are running so-called "oficinas de cobro," or collection offices. These organizations offer services such as protection of drug routes and contract killings for other criminal groups, and act as a bridge between Colombian criminal organizations like the Urabeños and traffickers who move drugs to subsequent destinations, according to a 2014 report (pdf) from the National Criminal Statistics System (Sistema Nacional Integrado de Estadísticas Criminales - SIEC) of Panama's Public Security Ministry.
However, the extensive network uncovered by Operation Omega raises the question of whether Panamanian groups continue to act merely as service providers for Colombian and Mexican criminal organizations, or whether they have begun to set up their own transnational trafficking operations.