HomeNewsPanama's Gang Wars Growing Worryingly Vicious

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.

SEE ALSO: Profile of Calor Calor

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.”

While the country’s homicide rate dropped steadily from 2013 to 2017, it has increased ever since and looks likely to do so again in 2021.

SEE ALSO: Can DEA Dismantle Panama's Top Gang?

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.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content

COLOMBIA / 13 NOV 2013

Homicides in Medellin, Colombia were down over 60 percent in October compared to the same month last year, a decrease…


Murders in Venezuela reached a record high of 58 per day during the first four months of the year,…


A new report analyzing the data behind Mexico’s drug war shows in 2012 organized crime related killings declined or leveled…

About InSight Crime


Venezuela El Dorado Investigation Makes Headlines

3 DEC 2021

InSight Crime's investigation into the trafficking of illegal gold in Venezuela's Amazon region generated impact on both social media and in the press. Besides being republished and mentioned by several…


Gender and Investigative Techniques Focus of Workshops

26 NOV 2021

On November 23-24, InSight Crime conducted a workshop called “How to Cover Organized Crime: Investigation Techniques and A Focus on Gender.” The session convened reporters and investigators from a dozen…


InSight Crime Names Two New Board Members

19 NOV 2021

In recent weeks, InSight Crime added two new members to its board. Joy Olson is the former executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America…


Senate Commission in Paraguay Cites InSight Crime

12 NOV 2021

InSight Crime’s reporting and investigations often reach the desks of diplomats, security officials and politicians. The latest example occurred in late October during a commission of Paraguay's Senate that tackled…


Backing Investigative Journalism Around the Globe

5 NOV 2021

InSight Crime was a proud supporter of this year's Global Investigative Journalism Conference, which took place November 1 through November 5 and convened nearly 2,000 journalists…