Bagdad, along with its rival Calor Calor, is one of Panama’s two main gang federations, consisting of 30-40 smaller gangs that work together to fulfill drug transportation across Panama for larger transnational crime groups.
However, the gangs that make up Bagdad do not have deep internal loyalty and often feud over microtrafficking in Panama City and other areas of the country.
Bagdad's origins go back to the Unión Soviética gang, itself a combination of smaller gangs named Bagdad, El Pentágono and Matar o Morir (MOM). Led by Jorge Rubén Camargo Clarke, alias "Cholo Chorrillo" or "El Cholo," Bagdad became notorious "tumbadores" -- gangs specialized in stealing drug shipments from trafficking groups. Bagdad was original based in El Chorrillo, while El Pentágono operated in Santa Ana and MOM in Curundú, all neighborhoods of Panama City.
Unión Soviética also extorted other criminal groups and fought to eliminate other gangs and tumbadores. Its enemies eventually rallied together to form "Calor Calor," starting a rivalry that continues to this day.
After the leaders of El Pentágono and MOM were killed, Bagdad took over the federation and its name stuck.
Bagdad still engages in drug theft but the gang's main activities now consist of controlling territory for the movement and sale of drugs. According to the Panama Attorney General's Office, in 2021, Bagdad charged between 5 to 10 percent of the price of cocaine shipments that they transported through the country. In 2014, InSight Crime research estimated the federation controlled over 50 percent of drug sales in Panama. Bagdad also provides services such as guarding shipments and contract killings, and engages in kidnapping and extortion. The gang recruits young people from about 14 years of age.
Bagdad and Calor Calor together were estimated to have more than 2,000 members in 2014.
Jorge Rubén Camargo Clarke, alias "Cholo Chorrillo," was the notorious leader of the Unión Soviética group and once ruled over Bagdad.
The current leader of Bagdad is Jaime Powell Rodriguez, alias “Yunya,” who took over around 2016.
According to InSight Crime field research, Yunya fancies himself a drug kingpin. He is known for being well-dressed and maintaining a public businessman persona, while actually using his network of businesses in Spain to ship drugs to Europe and launder money, which he hides in Swiss bank accounts.
In 2018, Powell Rodriguez was arrested in Dubai and extradited to Panama on charges of transnational drug trafficking, but was released in March 2019. In May 2020, Panamanian police were searching for him once again.
In 2021, Camargo Clarke was out of jail once more and was one of the main targets of Operation Neptune, a joint investigation into Bagdad by Panamanian authorities and the US Drug Enforcement Administration. It is believed he may have fled the country with other senior Bagdad commanders to avoid arrest.
Originally based in Panama City, Bagdad is now strongest across the canal in West Panama province, which borders with Panama City, Colón and the Pacific Ocean. The violent territorial conflict between Bagdad and Calor Calor has expanded from Panama City into West Panama, where drug shipments enter and leave from La Chorrera coastal area.
Bagdad and Calor Calor members often live in close proximity.
Bagdad is made up of numerous youth gangs. Groups that have been described as allies of Bagdad include "El Pentágono," "Vietnam 23," and "Nadie ta' Bien." Its main rival is Calor Calor, itself an agglomeration of groups.
The two organizations are the biggest criminal blocs in Panama and their rivalry centers around control of strategically located ports, shares of the international drug trade, especially the European market and over the personal rivalry between Yunya and the leader of Calor Calor, Eduardo Macea, alias Marshall.
Yunya and Marshall started out working together under Juan Vicente Blandford, alias El Pátron Juancito, but began fighting in 2014, when members of Calor Calor’s structure moved to Bagdad. Yunya has the reputation of being the less violent of the two criminals, while Marshall has a reputation for ruthlessness. El Pátron Juancito was captured in 2019, but is, reportedly, still trying to unite the two from within prison.
Since 2019, Bagdad has also had to deal with an internal rift, as one of its member-gangs, Matar o Morir (Kill or Be Killed – MOM) kept a shipment of drugs for themselves as a declaration of independence.
In December of 2019 Bagdad retaliated by orchestrating a shootout in La Joyita, one of Panama’s largest high-security prisons. One group of prisoners opened fire on another, using high-caliber assault weapons and leaving 15 dead and 11 more injured.
The incident became known as the “La Joyita Massacre,” and has set off a wave violence that both continues to flare up in the La Joya prison complex, but which has also spilled into the streets of Panama Oeste causing homicides rates to skyrocket.
Since then, Bagdad has drawn the wrong kind of attention from the DEA, which has a long track record of dismantling drug gangs in Central America, once they reach a certain size.
Bagdad’s operations in transnational drug trafficking have become more sophisticated and its role has changed from a subordinate to a subcontractor that brokers shipment of drugs for Colombian and Mexican groups through Panama and beyond, according to InSight Crime field research. Though Bagdad is likely to remain a middle man in the transnational drug trade, the business is lucrative and the stakes are getting higher.
However, the scale of violence involved in the La Joyita massacre may have marked a turning point. In April 2021, US and Panamanian authorities carried out large-scale raids, targeting Bagdad leadership, after a year-long investigation, which involved tapping phones, identifying front businesses and money laundering techniques. It is uncertain how Bagdad will be able to stand up to such pressure.