Just three weeks after the official transfer of the Panama Canal,
Colombian drug traffickers are setting up shop again in Panama after a
decade-long expulsion that began with the U.S. ousting of Gen. Manuel
Noriega for his drug cartel involvement there.
The absence of U.S. military forces has left the door wide open for
the return of drug traffickers who were expelled a decade ago, and at
least one Panamanian intelligence officer has admitted publicly that
Americans have good reasons to fear what may be in Panama’s future.
The discovery of mid-level traffickers’ move back to Panama began
early last year when the Panamanian coast guard stopped a speedboat,
launching an investigation that uncovered a drug operation stretching
from Colombia to the United States.
By tapping telephone numbers retrieved from cellular and satellite
phones found on board, law enforcement officials traced one-ton
shipments of cocaine from the Colombian port of Cartagena through Haiti
and the Dominican Republic to the U.S.
The Panama Canal: Miraflores Locks with Panama City in the background
Headquarters of the operation? Panama. In fact, Colombian drug
dealers have been moving their families to isolated outskirts of Panama
City in recent years, and have become very difficult to detect.
Heriberto Coneo, the suspect arrested this month as a result of the
speedboat investigation, is one example of low-profile traffickers
returning to Panama, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
Coneo kept an apartment in the prestigious Pacific Hills, a development
of three condominium towers in Panama City, and a house in Sarmeno,
about an hour outside the city. The unpretentious three-bedroom house
sits on a hill, barely visible from the road. The home has been
described as the drug dealer’s “retreat.”
The barely-literate Coneo sent his children to Panama’s best private
schools, and because he is from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, he easily
blended into Panamanian society, which is similar in culture and ethnic
In fact, law enforcement authorities acknowledge that they likely
would never have noticed him if not for the coast guard’s routine stop
of the speedboat last year. Early arrests in that case alerted Coneo,
who then moved his family back to Colombia where he was found on Jan. 8.
“They drive Toyotas,” a source close to the narcotics business told
the Times in reference to Panama’s elusive new resident smugglers.
“They don’t go to nightclubs and sit with 20 showgirls. They don’t go
to nightclubs at all.”
“They were too obvious in the [high-rise] buildings,” he said. “They
are well-dressed and [well-groomed], but the people who visit them are
not, so they are easy to spot.”
Law enforcement authorities said they are keeping tabs on other
suspected drug traffickers, several of whom have moved their wives or
mistresses to Panama while sending their children to boarding school or
college in the United States or Europe. The suspects are detected only
when they travel for visits.
Foreign-born traffickers, however, allow police even fewer
opportunities to detect them, said a Panamanian intelligence officer who
attributes their elusiveness to weak immigration regulations.
“They get on a plane from Colombia, buy a $5 tourist visa and, when
they arrive, they disappear,” said another source close to drug
traffickers. Panama’s extensive financial services sector offers them
the opportunity to invest, and technological advances have allowed them
to run their operations remotely.
Panama’s banking services have been an important conduit for
laundering money, a practice that many believe has continued during
Noriega’s absence. Stricter banking laws enacted in 1998 may have put a
damper on the laundering activities.
Those laws, as well as U.S. anti-drug activities in Panama, have kept
major Colombian drug-runners out of Panama until now.
But Panamanian law enforcement officials fear that once big-money
dealers see the relatively easy life being lived by mid-level dealers in
Panama, larger traffickers will move in.
“The big people are going to start coming, now that the Americans
have moved out,” said the Panamanian intelligence officer.
“[Drug traffickers] set up camp here, they have safe houses here,”
said one source who has been arrested but not convicted on money
laundering charges. The drug traffickers have taken a hint from rich
Colombians who have moved their families to Panama over the last five
years to avoid violence in their homeland, the source said.
A Panamanian law enforcement official agreed, saying, “They have
found a safe place to live in Panama.”
“This has happened for three reasons: neglect, neglect and neglect,”
said a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent to the Times.
“When Colombians realize that their own country is unstable, it is
impossible for them not to notice the dollarized economy of Panama,”
which in effect uses the U.S. currency as a secure alternative for their
As the U.S. has paid more attention to other foreign policy issues
and Colombian drug production has grown, he said, Panama must inevitably
feel the effects.
However, some Panamanian authorities argue that the presence of
narcotics traffickers is not something to worry about. They contend
that drug lords will treat Panama as a sanctuary, and that the Colombian
dealers’ residence there is the best guarantee that the nation will not
be used as a major transit route.
“Panama has always been a refuge,” said a high-ranking Panamanian
official who requested anonymity, according to the Times report. “Drug
dealers are no worse than [former Haitian dictator] Raoul Cedras,” who
moved to Panama just before U.S. troops occupied his country in 1994.
WorldNetDaily has published repeated warnings by authorities that
drug crimes would increase upon the transfer of the Panama Canal and the
withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region.
Last month, congressional investigator Al Santoli, who serves as
national security advisor to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., told
WorldNetDaily the greatest danger in the region is likely to be a
“dirty” war which the Communist Chinese will wage
in the region — by supporting mercenaries, drug cartels, crime lords
and hard-core revolutionaries throughout Central America.
Santoli’s delegation of congressional investigators made a special
trip to Panama last May, and found evidence of both Chinese and Russian
organized crime there.
“Chinese organized crime operations are active in drugs, guns and
illegal alien smuggling in Panama, and the Russian Mafia is known to be
supplying weapons to Colombian narco-terrorist forces,” the
congressional investigators said in their report. “The war in
neighboring Colombia against well-armed narco-terrorist forces, with a
history of ties to Cuba, is escalating and threatens to spread
throughout the region.”
The report also exposes Chinese intelligence officers’ practice of
buying off corrupt officials and eager business partners.
“The Panamanian government has an ongoing reputation for corruption
and mismanagement,” states the report, which also notes that the Chinese
came to control the vital waterway through crooked means.
“By most accounts, an unfair and corrupt contractual bidding process,
which was protested by the U.S. ambassador to Panama, enabled the
Chinese Hutchison Whampoa company to outmaneuver American and Japanese
companies for the long-term lease on the Canal ports,” according to the
Said the Panamanian intelligence officer: “The Americans have got to
be really worried, and I don’t blame them.”
Julie Foster is a staff
reporter for WorldNetDaily.
See Joseph Farah’s column:
Media silence on Panama Canal