Counterfeiting, contraband, cocaine: how Panama’s trade hub lost its lustre | Panama

In the Colón Free Trade Zone, close to the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal, the dated Perspex and glass buildings are emblazoned with model names for electronics, perfumes and textiles. Behind loom huge warehouses and dozens of port cranes, whereas on the road, store homeowners unload merchandise from transport containers.

Established in 1948, the world’s second largest free-trade zone was envisioned as a wholesale redistribution centre for Latin America and the Caribbean, however it has grow to be a world hub of counterfeiting, contraband and cocaine.

In November Europol arrested 49 members of a super-cartel centred on Dubai and accounting for a couple of third of Europe’s cocaine provide. One of these arrested was Anthony Martínez Meza, son of a director of the Colón Free Trade Zone, and suspected of organizing the shipments from Colón.

“Colón is likely one of the world’s nice logistical hubs, however prison organizations use this infrastructure to maneuver medication all around the world,” says Michael Chen, the president of Colón’s chamber of commerce. “Every day the scenario appears to worsen … organized crime and gangs discover extra artistic methods of getting via what’s left of my metropolis.”

In entrance of Chen’s workplace, building is nearing completion on a cruise port and duty-free shopping center he hopes will convey extra vacationer {dollars} to town. Around the nook, nevertheless, town’s morgue repeatedly runs out of area for the stream of cadavers, many bearing indicators of torture, that has surged as rival gangs look to regulate the medication trade.

“The goal of the gangs is to achieve management of the factors the place containers might be contaminated with medication within the free zone and the ports” stated Alejo Campos, the regional director of Crime Stoppers Latin America.

Sailors assigned to the USS Billings onload stores as the ship arrives in Colón, Panama. for a brief stop for fuel and provisions in March 2022.
Sailors assigned to the USS Billings onload shops because the ship arrives in Colón, Panama. for a short cease for gasoline and provisions in March 2022. Photograph: NB/IA/Alamy

Cocaine arrives at the free trade zone both immediately in container from Buenaventura, on Colombia’s Pacific coast, or via land routes, earlier than being hidden in different containers certain for Europe and past. In the ports, trade unions have been co-opted by the gangs and switch a blind eye as employees stash packages and substitute seals. Only 2% of cargo is handed via a container scanner designed to detect contraband. Meanwhile, underwater, divers weld “parasites” – long metal containers stuffed with cocaine – to the hulls of cargo ships. The majority of shipments intercepted by police in 2022 and 2023 were destined for Europe, in keeping with Panamanian officers.

With US assist, Panamanian authorities have scored some modest victories in opposition to the traffickers. In 2021 they confiscated 126 tonnes of medication, primarily cocaine, up from 82 tonnes the earlier 12 months. Stings have taken down a number of of Colón’s cocaine kingpins and uncovered $10m in bills behind the picket partitions of a Colón home. In December Panamanian police stated that they had arrested 27 members of the Clan de Gulfo, one of Colombia’s largest narco-trafficking organizations, who they accuse of recruiting agents and moles in the security forces, judiciary and civil service.

But the ensuing energy vacuums have solely led to extra violence.

“There’s an enormous territorial dispute proper now,” stated Campos. “The police actions have decapitated a number of the gangs and new leaders have emerged trying to place themselves of their patch, and that’s when the killings start.”

The collapse in safety has accelerated the decline of what was as soon as one of many Caribbean’s nice cities.

“We had bars on each nook, we had eating places and film homes. Colón by no means slept,” stated William Donadío, Colón’s famend tailor, now 94. When he minimize his first material in 1942, his shoppers included US servicemen and employees from the quite a few multinationals with workplaces within the metropolis. In the Nineteen Fifties, he was among the many crowds that lined the streets to witness the go to of the newly topped Queen Elizabeth II and President Dwight Eisenhower.

“But all the pieces that inflates,” he says, “finally explodes.”

An undated handout photo made available by the Spanish civil guard shows an operation in cooperation with Europol that has disbanded a cocaine super-cartel in Europe that was managed from Dubai. One of those arrested was the son of the director of Colón’s free trade zone.
An undated handout photograph made out there by the Spanish civil guard reveals an operation in cooperation with Europol that has disbanded a cocaine super-cartel in Europe that was managed from Dubai. One of these arrested was the son of the director of Colón’s free trade zone. Photograph: Guardia Civil Handout/EPA

In 1964, riots in opposition to US management of the Canal Zone left town in ruins. The Americans left in 1979, however returned a decade later when President George HW Bush ordered the invasion of Panama to take away Manuel Noriega.

Trash piles up on avenue corners and within the husks of town’s artwork deco buildings. From the courtyard of the as soon as grand however now abandoned Hotel Washington, the place Albert Einstein, Babe Ruth and David Lloyd George as soon as laid their heads, the view over the Caribbean is blocked by the rusting hull of a sand-banked cargo ship. In the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace, Colón had the doubtful honour of standing in for Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

Successive Panamanian governments have promised to pull Colón out of decline however have didn’t make significant progress in decreasing crime, offering fundamental providers and bettering high quality of life for its residents. Chen has proposed creating the Colón Security Committee, an alliance between the non-public sector, civil society and the federal government, to deal with crime. “If the federal government has monopoly of safety then corruption infiltrates,” he says.

But Chen is competing in opposition to greater forces. Major new investments from China, the US and Taiwan in port services, power tasks and mines are flowing into Colón. That brings alternatives for jobs and improvement but in addition crime and corruption in a metropolis that continues to be each blessed and cursed by its strategic geography.

“Regardless of the truth that the previous metropolis has been decaying, Colón is a precious piece of actual property,” says Donadío, who has lived via many boom-and-busts earlier than. “The metropolis won’t ever once more be the best way it was, however it’s nonetheless the hyperlink between two continents and two oceans. And proper now, I really feel there’s something within the air. Colón is ready to blow up once more.”