The leader of Panama’s largest drug trafficking group has been arrested in Costa Rica and is set to be extradited to the United States, although this is unlikely to heavily disrupt the cocaine pipeline through Central America.
On February 11, security forces in Costa Rica detained Jorge Rubén Camargo Clarke, alias “Cholo Chorrillo,” as he drove in the central town of Grecia, Panama’s National Police posted on Twitter. Authorities in Costa Rica had seemingly been tracking him since October 2021 but he had allegedly been hiding in the country since as early as April 2021, while continuing to coordinate drug trafficking activities in Panama, according to Costa Rican media reports citing Interpol.
Camargo Clarke, known as the founder of the Bagdad gang in Panama, may now face extradition to the United States. Shortly after his arrest, Interpol announced that he was wanted by a district court in Los Angeles on drug trafficking charges. However, upon appearing in court on February 14, Camargo Clarke refused to be voluntarily extradited and will spend at least two months in prison in Costa Rica while the extradition process is reviewed, the head of Interpol in Costa Rica told the press.
SEE ALSO: Profile of Bagdad
Camargo Clarke appears to have taken strong steps to hide, having bought two houses under a fake Costa Rican identity, keeping bodyguards regularly around him, and keeping a high quantity of cash in Costa Rican colones and US dollars. His wife is also under investigation linked to the cash found in their home.
The head of Bagdad was previously in prison for seven years in Panama, facing a raft of charges including homicide, drug trafficking and kidnapping, but was freed in 2018. He likely fled the country in 2021 after Panama, backed by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), led a major crackdown on Bagdad.
In late 2020, security forces staked out the birthday party of Camargo Clarke’s girlfriend in Panama and subsequently arrested a number of Bagdad members, including the leader’s sister.
Bagdad, along with its rival Calor Calor, is a confederation of gangs that rose from specializing in stealing drug shipments from other groups to being a crucial link in helping Colombian cocaine make its way north toward Mexico cartels. It was first founded in the 1990s when Camargo Clarke was a teenager.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Bagdad gang has had a rough few years, being specifically targeted by the DEA, having its facilities repeatedly raided in Panama and now seeing its top leader fall.
While Bagdad and Calor Calor have posed a security threat for years in Panama, the turning point came in 2019 during a massacre at La Joyita prison when an internal rebellion within the Bagdad gangs led to a shootout in which at least 15 prisoners died. These killings were allegedly orchestrated by Bagdad leadership to put down a rebel faction, known as Matar o Morir (Kill or be Killed).
SEE ALSO: Can DEA Dismantle Panama's Top Gang?
This shocking event, the worst in Panama’s history, appears to have jumpstarted Panama’s anti-gang efforts, backed by US allies. The scale of Bagdad’s involvement in drug trafficking rapidly became apparent. In 2021, the Panama Attorney General’s Office estimated Bagdad charged between 5 to 10 percent of the price of cocaine loads that they transported through the country, and netted annual profits of around $5 million.
It also swiftly became apparent how deeply Panama’s drug trafficking gangs had a hold inside security forces, with one ring dismantled in November including members of the Army, Navy and presidential guard.
It is uncertain if Bagdad can continue surviving for long after such repeated blows. However, with Panama seeing an ever-increasing amount of drugs flowing through it and being named as a major hotspot for cocaine trafficking to Europe and the United States, if Bagdad falls, somebody else will pick up the slack.