Drug trafficking thrives despite Noriega downfall


PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Drug trafficking and money laundering continue to thrive in Panama and may have increased since Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega was removed last December, according to U.S. and Panamanian officials.

Panamanian authorities are fighting the problems with greater vigilance today, observers said. But the effort has been hampered by a free-for-all being fought over markets General Noriega has been accused of once holding.

General Noriega, the former dictator who was arrested during last year's U.S. invasion, is awaiting trial in a Miami jail on drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges.

Some officials suspect that General Noriega has continued to operate through contacts in Panama. But they said his absence has resulted in turf wars over his former territory.

"What is happening is that the problem is probably much worse now than it was under Noriega," a Western diplomat said. "Because he was the boss, he kept it under control. Now that he's gone, it's like a hydra. Dozens and dozens of little heads have suddenly appeared. He's got a great deal of democratic enterprise going on."

Dr. Eduardo Londana, a member of Panama's anti-corruption unit, said, "Right now, there is a major fight going on for position between the guys who used to work for Noriega."

About 6,000 kilograms of cocaine have been seized this year, according to a U.S. narcotics official, almost double last year's figures.

That includes a 2,118-kilogram bust in September, the largest in the country's history, near Colon, a coastal city that is the main stopping point for much of the cocaine passing through Panama on its way to the United States from Colombia.

No one denies that the Panamanian authorities are making strides, but they appear to be fighting a blizzard of cocaine. According to a U.S. drug agent stationed in Panama, about 500 kilos, with a street value of $15 million, pass through the country every day.

The Panamanians are fighting several obstacles, especially the legacy of General Noriega's corruption. The country's anti-narcotics fight is being led by a special unit of Panama's Judicial Technical Police (PTJ), which, like the rest of the country's civilian police force, is composed mostly of holdovers from General Noriega's notorious Panamanian Defense Force.

The PTJ is supposed to work in tandem with the Panamanian Customs Service to prevent drugs from entering and leaving the country, but the relationship is marked by deep mistrust. Already, the PTJ has refused to go along with a plan to have officials from both agencies weigh cocaine and measure its purity after seizures, Panamanian government sources say. Such a plan would help prevent corrupt officers from stealing or cutting the cocaine's purity, "but they don't want that," a customs official said.

The battle against money laundering is proving just as difficult. Since the U.S. invasion last December, Panama's National Banking Commission has required banks to verify customers' identities and to report deposits over $10,000.

However, the government is balking at a treaty that, in addition to fighting money laundering, would allow U.S. investigators access to secret "numbered" accounts when wrongdoing is suspected.

Panamanian officials have said the treaty would damage the banking system, a claim the Americans and some Panamanians reject.

"The problem is really the politicians who are opposed to Panama giving away its sovereignty," a prominent bank president said. "You don't want a foreign nation going inside your books."

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