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Latin America - Panamá: Airport "tainted by a seamy underside of smuggling, trafficking and corruption"

by María Luisa Rivera for Wikileaks, January 11, 2011

Tocumen international airport in Panama is fast becoming a major criminal hub in Latin America, according to a cable sent by the U.S. embassy from Panama City in December 2009.

"Tocumen’s legitimate status as a crux of Latin America’s passenger and cargo traffic is tainted by a seamy underside of alien smuggling, money laundering, narcotics trafficking and corruption," according to the memo that was signed by Barbara J. Stephenson, the last U.S. ambassador to Panama.”

Suitcases with "virtually any amount of cash"

Despite the fact that Tocumen is the busiest airport in Central America (4.5 million passengers used the airport in 2008) Stephenson reports that "the traveler at Tocumen looking for food or something to read will find that the options are restricted to one Dunkin Donuts, one coffee shop, and zero bookstores."

Yet at the same time, she notes that "it is it is possible for transferring passengers to enter the duty free zone without inspection, carrying virtually any amount of cash. This cash can then be laundered through the duty free shops, which are not subject to serious regulatory scrutiny."

Indeed the embassy reports that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates that a single bulk cash smuggling operation by four individuals, including Ramon Martinell, the President’s second cousin, moved up to $30 million per month through Tocumen in 2008.

Not surprisingly, the busiest route out of Tocumen is Bogota, with Miami following close behind.

Archaic Procedures

According to the embassy cable, archaic procedures - the entire customs record is paper based - offers numerous opportunities for bribing customs officials. Many travelers declare amounts as high as quarter million dollars in cash and officials are routinely bribed to let in suitcases full of cash. The embassy notes that there is a suspicuous connection between travelers who declare large amounts of cash that are robbed after departing the airport, suggesting a joint enterprise between customs officers and the criminals.

The memo also says that "drug trafficking is a major problem at the cargo terminal, where DEA has seen an increase in 200 to 300 kilogram shipments moving via established cargo carriers. Such large shipments are impossible without the complicity of corrupt customs and law enforcement officials, and most likely cargo company employees as well."

The embassy notes that the board of directors at Tocumen includes Salomon Shamah, the tourism minister, who is "suspected of links to drug traffickers."

News reports fron Panama suggest that a number of transit passengers have also been caught carrying large quantities of drugs. For example in February 2009, two U.S. citizens - Dynisha Revel and Raabia Munir - were caught with 13 packages of cocaine stuffed into the black Lycra pants they were wearing. In July 2009, Andrey Ann Fover, another U.S. citizen was caught with six packages of cocaine taped to her body. In October 2010, Margarita García de Anaya, a 72 year old Venzeulan woman was caught with 11 packages of cocaine hidden in the false bottoms of two suitcases,

"Alien Smuggling"

Despite these pressing concerns, the top concern of the U.S. embassy in Panama is neither drug nor money laundering but "alien smuggling" - the term U.S. government officials use for human trafficking. The embassy notes that a "common route is for migrants to transit Tocumen on their way to Mexico and ultimately, an illegal entry across the U.S. southern land border."

The U.S. embassy in Panama city is also concerned that each of these three problems will increase in coming years given that there is a $80 million plan to expand capacity of Tocumen to ten million visitors per year. Despite of the "efforts" of several U.S. government agencies such as the DEA and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to work with the Panamanian authorities to fix the problem, the diplomats conclude that Panamanian "customs, immigration and police authorities are uncoordinated, undertrained and inadequate to meet current demand, much less the challenges associated with another doubling in traffic in the coming years."