Two attacks in recent days against gang members in Panama City have raised alarm bells that acts of shocking violence could become a regular occurrence in the country.
On October 29, five people were killed at a nightclub in Panama City after a shootout between drug gangs. At a press conference, prosecutor Rafael Baloyes stated that a gunman entered the club and opened fire on a group, killing four. Three of these were members of the Galácticos, a microtrafficking gang based in the Juan Díaz neighborhood of Panama City. Other gang members returned fire and killed the gunman. Seven others were injured in the crossfire.
According to a report by Panamanian newspaper Crítica, the shootout was allegedly due to a shipment of cocaine stolen by the Galácticos three months earlier. The newspaper spoke to sources close to the investigation who said that the shipment had reportedly belonged to a Mexican criminal group that identified those responsible and targeted them.
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A day earlier, on October 28, a leading member of the Calor Calor gang was attacked in his car along with his family. Jean Carlos Navarro Cunningham, alias “Chombolín,” his wife and their 3-year-old daughter were all injured but survived the attack. A 1-year-old baby was unharmed.
Calor Calor is one of the two largest criminal groups in Panama, bringing together several smaller gangs, along with Bagdad. The two sides regularly clash for control of drug shipments being transported through Panama along the cocaine pipeline to the United States, as well as microtrafficking in the country.
InSight Crime Analysis
Panama is confronting several worrying symptoms of its increasing gang warfare.
First, the country’s homicide rate is slowly ticking up. From January to September 2021, Panama saw 410 murders, 26 more than the same period last year, according to statistics from the Attorney General’s Office cited by Efe.
The blame for this increase has been squarely placed on the gangs. In July, Panama’s police chief, John Dornheim, stated that “over 70 percent of homicides…are linked to national and transnational organized crime.”
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Secondly, these homicides have been clustered in drug trafficking hotspots, confirming the links to organized crime. The province of Panama Oeste, where both Bagdad and Calor Calor operate, has seen the lion’s share of the homicide increase. In 2020, killings there reached 90, almost double the 51 seen in 2019.
Increasing drug flows through this province has led to new rifts forming in Bagdad, with one massacre at La Joyita prison leaving 12 dead in December 2019.
Another hotspot is the northern province of Colón, the Atlantic gateway to the Panama Canal, which has seen a rapid rise in cocaine seizures. Homicides have risen rapidly in the last two years, including a 21 percent rise in the first quarter of 2021. Public Security Minister Juan Pino has also pinned Colón’s rise in violence on gang rivalries over the drug trade.
Thirdly, homicides are becoming increasingly public. Much like in Ecuador, another country struggling with a massive rise in gang violence and murder, Panama is seeing victims being openly targeted in nightclubs or when driving with their young children.
The country has made a strong response, enlisting the help of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2021 to go after top gang leaders and the corrupt officials who support them.
But with ever-greater amounts of cocaine flowing through the country towards the United States and Europe, the challenge ahead is momentous.