The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) works to keep Americans safe at home by countering international crime, illegal drugs, and instability abroad. INL helps countries deliver justice and fairness by strengthening their police, courts, and corrections systems. These efforts reduce the amount of crime and illegal drugs reaching U.S. shores.
Panama is a major transshipment crossroad in the Western Hemisphere for illicit trafficking due to the presence of the Panama Canal and the country’s geographic location and infrastructure. Traffickers move illegal contraband in smaller quantities through the remote Darién region bordering Colombia and in larger quantities along its coastline. In 2017, Panama seized over 75 metric tons of cocaine, edging past 2016’s record numbers. INL helped transform Panama into a regional leader in counternarcotics activity, reducing the flow of cocaine to the United States. Panama is one of our strongest regional partners in combatting irregular migration destined for the United States. INL programs in Panama are consistent with security and governance priorities of the U.S. Strategy for Central America and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). There are opportunities to improve cooperation on fighting financial crimes, countering the flow of contraband and migrants, and ensuring effective prosecution of criminals under Panamanian law.
Border Control – INL supports multiple Panamanian agencies to secure their border. Through an Interagency Agreement with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), INL is a key partner to SENAFRONT, the Panama police force responsible for controlling land and coastal security. This agreement enables training for SENAFRONT officers on biometric data collection, modernizing border controls, and improving interdiction practices. In 2018, SENAFRONT seized 5.3 metric tons of cocaine with INL support.
Aviation Program – INL works with Panama to develop its aviation capacity through programs such as aircrew skills building, interdiction support and training, and basic infrastructure enhancements. INL supports six U.S. government helicopters to provide training and assist Panamanian security personnel in accessing remote areas often used as transit points for illicit activities and migration. In 2018, U.S. and Panamanian aviation assets coordinated with maritime and land-based forces from Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica to stem the flow of northbound drugs as part of Operation Regional Shield, striking a significant blow to transnational criminal organizations. In the last quarter of 2018, more than 3.6 metric tons of cocaine were seized through Operation Regional Shield.
Maritime Interdiction – Panama has 2,490 kilometers (1547 miles) of coastline with nearly 500 rivers connecting the jungle and mountainous interior to the oceans. This geography drives the maritime needs of multiple police forces in Panama, as each force has units dedicated to law enforcement using maritime and riverine vessels. INL Panama partners with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to implement strategic efforts to build the capacity of Panama to patrol its waterways to interdict narcotics, deter irregular migration, and combat transnational criminal organizations. Intelligence derived from INL-supported vetted units contributed to nearly a third of Panama’s interdictions in 2017. INL supports two U.S. Coast Guard Support to Interdiction and Prosecution (SIP) advisors to ensure the ability to transfer evidence and prosecute criminal activities. Overall drug smuggling arrests increased 40 percent from 2016 to 2017, and SIP support is leading to higher prosecution rates and longer prison sentences (8 to 14 years) for defendants. INL’s program to refurbish seized and donated maritime assets and provide mentors for improved planning is increasing the operational capacity and tempo of maritime operations. Panama’s three maritime services are refurbishing a significant number of maritime vessels on their own but require support to fully maximize the country’s interdiction capacity.
Anti-Financial Crimes – INL assists Panama to increase the country’s ability to investigate financial crimes and improve transparency in international and domestic financial transactions. Through regulatory and investigative training, INL helps Panama improve the level of performance, increase the capacity to detect financial crimes, and implement new regulatory and oversight processes. INL partners with the United Kingdom to maintain a Criminal Justice Advisor in Panama to develop anti-money laundering and anti-corruption protocols.
Law Enforcement/Security Leadership Development – With INL assistance, Panama’s National Police (PNP) reformed its police academy curriculum, enabling the academy to grant the equivalent of an Associate’s degree for academy graduates. Because of its success, the government tasked PNP to replicate the model throughout Panama’s security services and, with INL assistance, to establish a National Security University similar to the U.S. Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLETC) model. The National Security University will include all security services trainings with the opportunity to grow as an international training center. INL developed and donated advanced technology and software to the PNP, enabling real-time police data collection and analysis and resulting in a notable drop in crime rates in Panama. The program was replicated in Costa Rica and is being improved for use by all of the security forces in Panama.
Vetted Units – INL supported vetted units augment Panama’s efforts to professionalize law enforcement institutions. The units create trustworthy counterparts with which U.S. law enforcement can safely share actionable intelligence. They conduct complex investigations to combat illicit trafficking by transnational criminal organizations, potentially resulting in successful prosecutions. INL provides training, equipment, and operational support for two vetted units mentored by the Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security Investigations.
Justice Sector Reform – INL support helped Panama successfully transition to the accusatory system in 2016. The INL Justice Reform program identifies areas for improvement in the Panamanian accusatory system, and INL brings together Panamanian entities to develop their own standard operating procedures. INL assisted the Judicial Academy to obtain Ministry of Education accreditation as a graduate level educational institute, with international certification as the next goal for the program. INL programs support forensic laboratories to improve their process, facilities, and communication, with the goal of achieving ISO certification.