US counterdrug agents and authorities in Panama have recently targeted one of the country's largest gangs, revealing its ability to coordinate drug shipments northward. But the group, known as Bagdad, may not be able to withstand the pressure.
After an investigation lasting over a year, Panama's security forces and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have carried out a series of raids -- dubbed Operation Neptune -- that led to the arrests of at least 20 suspected members of Bagdad. The arrests included several members connected to the 2019 La Joyita prison massacre, in which 15 people died.
SEE ALSO: Bagdad Profile
The investigation was extensive. Panamanian news sources reported that investigators followed gang members and tapped their phones. They also identified properties, companies and bank accounts belonging to gang members. The group, according to authorities, used Pacific routes to move Colombian cocaine north, after which it was passed on to other criminal actors.
Bagdad -- a criminal federation composed of 30 to 40 smaller gangs -- is led by Jorge Rubén Camargo Clarke, alias “Cholo Chorrillo," who had been previously jailed on homicide and gang charges but was released in 2018.
A turning point in the investigation came in late 2020, when security forces staked out the birthday party of Camargo Clarke’s girlfriend, attended by most of Bagdad’s leadership. Several raids took place that same night, one targeting the house of Camargo Clarke’s sister, Panama Press reported. Prosecutors have alleged that she is in charge of Bagdad's finances and is listed as president or legal representative on many of its front companies.
In the sister's house, investigators found a notebook with a list of police officers who were allegedly on the gang's payroll. One officer was even providing security for the party and had been giving Bagdad information about police movements, according to Panama America.
The raids did not capture Camargo Clarke who, intelligence sources told La Prensa, is presumed to have fled the country along with other top Bagdad members.
InSight Crime Analysis
The DEA's participation in the investigation against Bagdad shows that the Panama gang has emerged as a crucial link in the transnational cocaine trafficking chain between Colombia and the United States.
The group has gone from being a gang of "tumbadores," or thieves specialized in stealing drugs from other groups, to controlling cocaine shipments crossing Panama.
Bagdad has shown its capacity to coordinate sophisticated transport operations through Panama by both land and sea. One of the group’s members, alias "Dutary," ran a drug distribution and transport network through the archipelago of Las Perlas, islands off the country's Pacific coast. There, he enrolled fishermen in his operations to act as informants and drug runners.
What’s more, the group has managed to capture key territory within the country. According to one prosecutor, Bagdad has not only maintained control over its traditional Panama City strongholds but has also expanded to other neighborhoods in the capital and outside of it, including the provinces of Panamá Oeste and Veraguas.
Perhaps most tellingly, officials admit that the group has successfully co-opted state security forces. The Panama Press reported allegations that the police officers found on Bagdad’s payroll both helped members to avoid arrest and to plan drug trafficking operations.
“Bagdad is not a gang, nor a criminal organization. It’s a criminal corporation with all the economic layers and money launderers needed to commit crimes at the national level, as well as the tentacles and association with foreign criminal corporations," one prosecutor attached to the case was quoted as saying.
But attracting close interest from the DEA and other US authorities has often been the kiss of death for drug trafficking groups in Central America, as evidenced by the Huistas and the Lorenzanas in Guatemala and Los Valles in Honduras.
Then there are the Cachiros, whose status at the time of their downfall shared a close resemblance to Bagdad today. In 2013, the DEA took a special interest in the Cachiros, one of Honduras’ largest drug transport groups. What followed were a series of seizures, arrests and financial pressures -- as well as efforts to dismantle the group’s corrupt police network -- that in some ways parallel the current raids on Bagdad in Panama. Honduran authorities even referred to the seizures by the same name – Operation Neptune.
Facing similar pressure from the DEA, Bagdad may not be able to hold out.