The government increased law enforcement efforts. Article 456 of the penal code did not criminalize all forms of sex and labor trafficking because it required movement to constitute a trafficking offense. It specifically criminalized anyone who promotes, leads, organizes, finances, invites, or manages by any means of communication, mass or individual, or in any other way facilitates the entry into or the exit from the country or the movement within the country of a person of any sex, to realize one or several acts of prostitution or submit a person to exploitation, sexual or labor servitude, slavery or activities similar to slavery, forced labor, servile marriage, mendacity, illicit extraction of organs or irregular adoption, prescribing sentences from 15 to 20 years imprisonment. These punishments were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Inconsistent with international law, the law established the use of force, fraud, or coercion as aggravating factors, rather than essential elements of the crime. The law defined trafficking broadly to include illegal adoption without the purpose of exploitation and labor exploitation. Panamanian officials continued to investigate and prosecute trafficking cases that did not involve the displacement of individuals as other crimes, such as commercial sexual exploitation. For example, the government charged some child sex traffickers with child sexual exploitation, which carries lighter sentences. Article 180 criminalized the prostitution of minors with penalties of four to six years imprisonment and a 5,200 balboas ($5,200) fine. Article 186 criminalized purchasing commercial sex acts involving a child and prescribed penalties of five to eight years imprisonment.
Authorities initiated 18 trafficking investigations involving 17 suspects, compared to seven sex trafficking investigations involving 13 suspects in 2016. The government prosecuted 24 suspects under the trafficking law, compared with 13 in 2016. Authorities convicted seven traffickers—four sex traffickers and three labor traffickers—compared to two sex traffickers in 2016. The government sentenced these traffickers to 10 to 15 years imprisonment, compared to six to 18 years in 2016. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in trafficking offenses. At least 11 trafficking investigations remained ongoing from the previous reporting periods. The government continued to detain two suspected labor traffickers in a case from a previous year, pending additional evidence. Authorities investigated a sex trafficking operation run by Chinese nationals who recruited Venezuelan women and catered to Chinese-speaking purchasers in Panama.
The Panamanian National Police had 30 officers with specialized training in trafficking investigations and worked with the attorney general’s organized crime office to investigate cases. The government dismantled the sub-unit dedicated to trafficking crimes, which had been set up in 2016. Panamanian authorities cooperated with Central and South American countries on three trafficking operations, which led to three investigations and prosecutions. The government provided in-kind support to international organizations, which provided training on trafficking for officials, utilizing a train-the-trainer model that reached more than two dozen officials from eight ministries.