Overview: Panama remained a willing partner for bilateral and multilateral counterterrorism cooperation. As a transit country for illicit goods, money, and migrants, Panama’s geographic location makes its willingness to engage on counterterrorism important for regional security. Panamanian President Varela approved the creation of the Special Interest Alien (SIA) Joint Task Force, which established a bilateral mechanism with the United States to share information on special interest aliens (non-U.S. persons who, based on an analysis of travel patterns, potentially pose a national security risk to the United States or its interests) and known and suspected terrorists with the objective of detaining and/or deporting them as appropriate. The Panamanian government cooperated with U.S. authorities on several such cases. Additionally, the Panamanian government facilitated the multilateral investigation and elimination of ISIS-controlled servers found in Panama.
Panama is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and remained involved in the Defeat-ISIS Coalition’s Counter-ISIS Finance Group.
2018 Terrorist Incidents: There were no terrorist attacks reported in Panama in 2018.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Panama does not have comprehensive counterterrorism legislation or a robust counterterrorism legal framework. Officials from the Panamanian National Security Council, the border service, the immigration service, and the police meet frequently among themselves and with U.S. government officials to coordinate and act on migration alerts and to detain and deport travelers who represented a security risk.
The SIA Joint Task Force Executive Decree established a bilateral interagency mechanism to share information on special interest aliens and known and suspected terrorists and to respond to specific cases more adequately. The Task Force includes Panama’s National Police, National Border Service (SENAFRONT), National Air and Naval Service, National Migration Service (SNM), and intelligence service officials, as well as the U.S. Embassy’s Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection. While its own special interest alien intelligence capacity is limited, the Government of Panama acted as a willing partner in responding to U.S. alerts. Logistical challenges, such as routing flights for deportations and the lack of diplomatic relationships with some migrants’ countries of origin, continued to limit Panama’s ability to deport individuals without U.S. government assistance.
In July and August, SNM apprehended and deported known and suspected terrorists in two separate incidents. In July, a suspected terrorist attempted to transit the Panama Canal on a cargo ship. SENAFRONT apprehended the individual on the Panamanian border with Colombia and he was subsequently deported to Pakistan. In August, two known and suspected terrorists and 13 others with ties to al-Shabaab traveled as tourists to Panama from Spain via Colombia. Watchlisting information flagged both individuals, but only after they had left the airport, and the entire group was subsequently expelled from Panama.
Both incidents demonstrate the varied routes of entry that known and suspected terrorists and special interest aliens used to transit Panama and the successful coordination and results from the newly formed SIA Joint Task Force. The Ministry of Security and the National Customs Authority drafted an action plan and solicited bids to address the country’s lack of cargo scanners. As of the end of 2018, funding had not been secured to purchase scanners. The lack of scanners significantly limits the government’s ability to analyze cargo transshipping or transiting the country, including at the international airport and entry and exit of the Colón Free Trade Zone.
Panama continued to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement on various counterterrorism cases this year, including individuals linked to Hizballah.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Panama is a member of the Financial Action Task Force of Latin America (GAFILAT), a FATF-style regional body, and assumed the GAFILAT presidency in 2018. Panama’s FIU, the Financial Analysis Unit Panama (UAF), is a member of the Egmont Group.
In January, GAFILAT published its Mutual Evaluation Report of the Republic of Panama, which identified Panama as a jurisdiction with AML/CFT deficiencies and placed the country on a one-year enhanced review period. GAFILAT’s report specifically noted that Panamanian public and private sector institutions lacked a general understanding of the risk factors related to the financing of terrorism, as well as the capacity to detect possible cases of such acts. GAFILAT required Panama to continue reporting on the progress made to strengthen its implementation of AML/CFT measures during 2019, after which it will reassess Panama’s progress and determine next steps.
For additional information on money laundering and financial crimes, see the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), Volume II, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes.
Countering Violent Extremism: There were no changes in 2018.
International and Regional Cooperation: Panamanian authorities played a critical role in shutting down ISIS propaganda web servers with IP addresses based in Panama. Once alerted by U.S. law enforcement, the Government of Panama worked with a Panamanian company to eliminate ISIS’s use of its web-hosting servers. Further, Panama’s cooperation facilitated investigations by law enforcement services of eight countries that identified end users and uncovered ISIS networks in those countries.
Panama is also an active participant in UN and regional security initiatives such as the Organization of American States/Inter-American Committee against Terrorism (OAS/CICTE). Panama held the chair of OAS/CICTE from March 2017 to May 2018. In November, Panama hosted OAS/CICTE for a U.S. Department of State-funded workshop – Technical Assistance Project for Implementation of Financial Sanctions against Terrorism – to develop national countering the finance of terrorism legislation for Panama.
Separately, Panama has steadily increased its cooperation with its neighbors to better secure its borders against transnational criminal organizations. In 2018, Panamanian security forces conducted operations with Costa Rica and Colombia to identify transnational criminal organizations routes and networks.