A Tide of Cocaine Rises in Panama

Vulnerable coast, Noriega legacy, little antidrug money make country a haven for traffickers. CENTRAL AMERICA

PANAMA is flush with cocaine bound for the United States. With its sprawling and unguarded coastline, Panama is luring smugglers from neighboring Colombia, where drug lords are on the run. Panamanian officials have seized tons of cocaine in recent months, but say they are only skimming the surface.

``There's still a lot of drugs going through Panama,'' says Deane Hinton, US Ambassador to Panama. ``If you are seizing this much with a ... small, untrained narcotics force, the conclusion's got to be there's probably a lot that nobody's getting.''

When the US invaded Panama last December and arrested Gen. Manuel Noriega on drug charges, it was hailed as a major blow against drug trafficking. Under Noriega's corrupt regime, Panama's drug flow went from a gurgle to a gush. Drug enforcement, meanwhile, was ``selective.''

``The only drugs captured were from traffickers who didn't pay off [the regime,]'' says Rodrigo Arosemena, Panama's customs director.

But with Noriega gone, many hoped Colombia's drug cartels would be shut out. Instead, traffickers appear to be moving in.

Police say it is ``likely'' the cartels have set up a cocaine factory in Darien, a jungle province bordering Colombia. The US is planning an aerial survey to detect labs and airstrips, US officials say.

Panama's rambling Atlantic and Pacific coasts are a smuggler's dream, with nearly wide-open access. South American smugglers spirit US-bound cocaine by boat to remote Panamanian ports, then through a tangle of smuggling trails. Traffickers rarely run afoul of Panama's tiny Coast Guard fleet: just two fishing skiffs and a patrol boat that guard 1,250 miles of shoreline.

On land, police agents armed with revolvers and Taiwanese rifles raid suspecting drug dens in a low-budget version of Miami Vice. So far this year agents have seized about four tons of cocaine, one ton more than last year's catch. Last month, police captured a $52 million shipment.

But the rest slips through - by air, sea, and land - to the US, Europe and to Panama. ``One would presume it's a lot, based on the seizures,'' a US official says.

Still, some reject the idea that when more cocaine is seized, more cocaine is being shipped.

``There is the sense that the movement is greater,'' says Ramiro Jarvis, Chief of Panama's 50-man anti-narcotics force. ``But I think its based more than anything on police and customs efforts to do a professional job.''

Some also say the cocaine pipeline is clogged with old shipments, not fresh arrivals. ``There still may be drugs in Panama from the previous government,'' says Mr. Arosemena. ``Maybe because [traffickers] haven't been able to totally get rid of them.''

Colombia's year-long crackdown on drug lords has complicated Panama's problems. With Colombian police striking at traffickers, the cartels are seeking relief. Given its lax enforcement and shared border with Colombia, Panama is a natural refuge.

``They think its safer to put [drugs] in Panama, where they know there's a reorganization process, than in Colombia where there's a fight against drug trafficking,'' Mr. Jarvis says.

Panama's customs service works with police to detect drugs. At airports, drug-sniffing dogs poke at baggage while inspectors spot-check cargo. Yet, customs and police sometimes seem to be battling each other instead of traffickers. Police complain customs has squeezed them out of airports; customs agents say police need to be watched.

Poorly paid government workers still are ripe for smugglers' bribes. ``We have a couple of fellows about whom we have some doubt,'' says Mr. Hinton, referring to unidentified lower- and middle-level officials. ``The payoff is so great for badly paid people that they do these things.''

The US ambassador praises Panama's cooperation on drug matters, but is also ``disturbed'' by delays in letting the US Coast Guard start joint sea patrols. Panama says the patrols may violate its territorial sovereignty.

``We've lost a lot of time and a lot of drugs have come in,'' says Hinton, adding that both sides are close to agreement.

Meanwhile, Washington is pumping half a million dollars into training and equipment for drug agents. But Panama's economic crisis has pinched drug control funds. Agents need everything from cars to guns and money for informants.

On a recent night raid in Panama City's Predregal neighborhood, police failed to chase a suspected smuggler. Agents had no flashlights to guide them up a dark passage where he fled.

Hinton admits US money may not go very far. ``When the allocations were originally made, we thought that maybe [trafficking] wouldn't be as bad as it turned out to be,'' he says.

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