Panama Country Profile


Key Statistics

Population: 3.6 million (CIA World Factbook, 2014)

Capital: Panama City

Languages: Spanish, English

Major Ethnic Groups: mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 70%, Amerindian and mixed (West Indian) 14%, white 10%, Amerindian 6%

GDP per Capita (current US dollars): 12,827 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

GDP per Capita PPP (current international dollars): 19,033 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

Security Sector Stats

Active Armed Forces: 12,000 (Military Balance, 2014)

Small Arms: the estimated total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians in Panama is 450,000; the defence forces of Panama are reported to have 29,000 firearms; and Police are reported to have 15,500 firearms (Gun Policy, 2015) 

Military Expenditure: n/a

Executive Summary

Since the dramatic social and institutional upheavals that came in the wake of the 1989 invasion by the United States, Panama has enjoyed a period of relative stability and uninterrupted democracy.

However, the country suffers from numerous ills common to the region—corruption, street gangs, drug trafficking and money laundering—and violence has risen substantially over the last decade, although not to the levels seen in some of its neighbours.

Many of the challenges unique to Panama come from its location at “the mouth of the funnel”—a reference to its proximity to one of the main cocaine producer countries, Colombia. Consequently, Panama is a major transit route for drugs moving from Colombia to the United States. It is also the site of Colombian rebel activity, with guerrillas taking advantage of the lack of governance in the southern border region to move between countries and seek refuge from the Colombian security forces.

Panama’s security and justice institutions suffer from corruption, institutional weakness and inefficiency, although, again, not to the extent of many of its neighbours. The justice system is in the middle of a complete overhaul as it moves toward an adversarial system, while there are also attempts in progress to strengthen the capacities of the security forces, who work closely with international partners from Latin America and the United States.

Security and Justice Context

While Panama is not confronting the sort of critical security issues seen elsewhere in Central America, it faces a number of challenges, mostly arising from the growth of street gangs within the country and its role in the international drugs trade.

In the last 15 years, Panama has witnessed a significant increase in its murder rate, which reached 23.6 homicides per 100,000 people in 2009, up from 9.9 per 100,000 in 1998. However, this rate fell the following three years and the country recorded a rate of 18.9 murders per 100,000 in 2012 (See Figure 1.).


Fig. 1 Panama Homicide Rate 2000-2012

Since 2008, around 80 percent of murders were committed with firearms, a percentage that has risen in conjunction with the murder rate. There are estimated to be between 400,000 and 500,000 guns owned by civilians. However, less than 200,000 of these are officially registered.

The rise in murder rate has coincided with the rapid expansion of street gangs, which are involved in robbery, extortion, low level drug dealing and murder. In 2005, police identified 88 street gangs. According to the government, by 2012, there were 247 gangs, made up of approximately 4,500 youths, although other sources place the number substantially higher. In recent years, the Panamanian government has run a reinsertion program offering gang members alternatives[1] to crime.

Panama faces numerous issues related to the international drug trade. Owing to its transportation networks—including the Panama Canal—and its border with the world’s largest cocaine producer, Colombia, Panama is a major transit route for drugs moving from South America to the United States.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), cocaine shipments move by sea from Colombia from either the Gulf of Uraba on the Atlantic coast or Jurado on the Pacific coast before being consolidated in Panama and moved north.

In 2011, Panamanian authorities seized 34 tons of cocaine, 4.9 tons of marijuana, 295 kilograms of crack cocaine and 194 kilograms of heroin. The 2011 cocaine seizures marked a substantial drop from the 49.5 tons seized in 2010, a reduction the US State Department attributed at least in part to the disruption caused to established trafficking routes and methods by successful interdiction operations. This theory is in part supported by a corresponding increase in the use of land routes in neighbouring Costa Rica.

The Panamanian authorities work closely with US law enforcement agencies in counter-narcotics operations, a collaboration that has not been without controversy. A leaked US diplomatic cable from 2008 revealed a secret agreement which, among other things gave US officials permission to intercept phone calls believed to be linked to drug trafficking, make unilateral drug seizures without the prior consent of their Panamanian counterparts, conduct aerial surveillance and board Panamanian-registered ships in international waters—an especially controversial point due to the extremely high number of commercial ships registered in Panama under a “flag of convenience.”[2]

Panama is a key centre for money laundering and criminal groups—among them Colombia’s Urabeños—are believed to invest their profits in both legal and illegal businesses in the country, including construction, transport, auto-trading and prostitution. In the past, money laundering rings linking Latin American criminal organisations with groups in the Middle East have been identified in Panama.  According to the US State Department, money laundering is facilitated by a weak regulatory framework, uneven enforcement of money laundering measures and a weak and corrupt judiciary.

Money laundering activities are believed to be especially prevalent in the Colón Free Trade Zone, which also has the country’s highest murder rate at nearly three times the national average. Authorities believe Colombian criminal groupsuse the free zone to spend US dollars from drug sales on merchandise that is subsequently smuggled into Colombia and sold at discount prices, allowing the groups to convert dollars into pesos.

Although most trafficking activities are carried out by local groups known as “transportistas”,some transnational criminal organisations such as Colombia’s Urabeños and Mexico’s Zetas gang reportedly operate in Panama. The only major group with a large scale presence in the country is the leftist Colombian guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Since the early 1980s, the FARC’s 57th Front has made use of the wild jungle in the Darien border region in the south to establish camps.  The dense terrain and absence of security forces there allows the group to use Panamanian territory as a refuge and supply point and to oversee drug trafficking operations in the region. Past arrests show that the FARC collaborates with local Panamanian traffickers to move drugs shipments.

The guerrillas generally avoid confrontation with Panamanian security forces and maintain they are not hostile towards the Panamanian government. Indeed, documents found on the computer of killed FARC leader Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raul Reyes”[3] suggested there had been high level contact between the FARC and the administrations of Mireya Moscoso (1999-2004) and Martin Torrijos (2004-2009)—something both former presidents deny. In 2011, Panama and Colombia signed a Binational Border Security Plan designed to boost the Panamanian security forces’ limited capacity to carry out operations targeting drug trafficking and the FARC.

Perceptions of Insecurity

According to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), the perception of insecurity in Panama has been falling even as the murder rate has been rising. In 2004, it stood at 46.9 points[4] and, aside from a small rise in 2010, has continued to fall each time it was measured, reaching 31.9 in 2012, one of the lowest ratings in the region (See Figure 2.).

In 2012, the economy was seen as a more important problem than crime; 34.3 percent of respondents saw the economy as a main concern compared to 29 percent for crime, according to LAPOP.

Fig. 2 Panama Perception of Insecurity 2010 and 2012

Security and Justice Institutions

Justice Institutions

The highest court in Panama is the Supreme Court of Justice (Corte Suprema de Justicia), which consists of four chambers; Civil (Civil), Criminal (Penal) Administrative Litigation (Contencioso-Administrativo) and General Affairs (Negocios Generales). There are nine Supreme Court judges, who are nominated by the cabinet (Consejo de Gabinete) and approved by the National Assembly (Asemblea Nacional).

Below the Supreme Court are 14 Superior Courts (Tribunales Superiores). Panama is divided into four judicial districts which are served by five Superior Courts handling criminal and civil cases[5] . The remaining Superior Courts specialise in work, family and maritime cases, respectively, among other subjects.

Each judicial district is served by a court of appeal which helps comprise the 14 Superior Courts. These hear appeals against criminal and civil case rulings emanating from lower courts; each of Panama’s nine provinces and two indigenous regions has local courts (Juzgados). Ultimately, rulings may be subject to review in the corresponding chamber of the Supreme Court which holds final appellate jurisdiction. 

Panama’s legal system is based on civil law. The country is currently in the middle of a four-year transition to an accusatory legal system from an inquisitorial system. The new system is introducing oral trials, impartial judges and the presumption of innocence. Verdicts will now be passed by either a panel of three judges or a jury, depending on the type of case. Prosecutors from the Public Ministry (Ministerio Público) are now responsible for overseeing investigations, handing down charges and prosecuting cases. Investigations will be carried out in collaboration with the Directorate of Judicial Investigation (Dirección de Investigación Judicial) and the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences (Instituto de Medicina Legal y Ciencias Forenses).

While Panama’s judicial system is constitutionally independent from the executive and legislative branches, the country scored badly in the World Economic Forum’s 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report for judicial independence, ranking 132 out of 144 countries surveyed—one of the worst in the region.

Panama’ attorney general (Procurador(a) General de la Nación), represents the state in legal affairs and directs criminal prosecutions. It is housed under the Public Ministry. There are also district attorneys (Fiscales Superiores de Distritos Judiciales), circuit attorneys (Fiscales de Circuitos), and municipal attorneys (Personeros Municipales), to serve each judicial level.

Panama has an Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría Del Pueblo), which oversees human rights issues and handles complaints against the state for alleged injustices.

The main issue facing the Panamanian justice system is a serious backlog of cases—at least in part owing to the inefficiencies of the inquisitorial legal system—and corruption. According to LAPOP, in 2010 50.9 percent of Panamanians believed corruption was the legal system’s biggest problem, and of respondents that had had dealings with the court system, 23.9 percent reported having to pay a bribe—more than quadruple the figure recorded in 2008. In comparison, 25.7 percent responded that the biggest problem was the court system being too slow. In the same poll, 41.5 percent responded that they had “little” or “no” confidence that if they were a victim of crime, those responsible would be punished.

As of September 2012 ,there were 14,238 inmates in Panama’s penitentiary system, almost 6,000 over the official capacity (8,648). Over 65 percent of inmates were pre-trial detainees or prisoners on remand, pointing to how judicial inefficiency has helped exacerbate the problem of severe overcrowding. The country has an incarceration rate of 345 per 100,000, one of the highest in the region (although still less than half the figure for the regional leader—the United States). According to a 2011 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report, in addition to overcrowding, Panamanian prisons also see widespread violence, corruption and brutality.

The prison system falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Government (Ministerio de Gobierno) and is managed by the General Directorate of the Penitentiary System (Dirección General de Sistema Penitenciario–DGSP). As of 2011, only 0.35 percent of the state’s budget was earmarked for the prison system.

Security Institutions

The Public Security Forces of Panama (Fuerza Pública de Panama), includes the National Police (Policia Nacional) National Air-Naval Service (Servicio Nacional Aeronaval-ENAN), and the National Border Service (Servicio Nacional de Fronteras-SENAFRONT). The three bodies fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Security (Ministerio de Seguridad Pública)which was created in 2010[6] .

Following the 1989 US invasion, the Panamanian military was abolished.

In 1994, the Legislative Assembly passed a constitutional amendment that prohibited the creation of a standing military but created provisions for the temporary creation of special police units to tackle “external aggression.”

Corruption is a major issue affecting all levels of the security forces. According to the US State Department, Panama’s security forces have been penetrated by criminal organisations and some members are themselves involved in drug trafficking. In 2011, Panama’s deputy security minister revealed that over 2,600 members of the security forces had been removed for misconduct in the two previous years, many of them related to criminal activities.

There have also been reports of police abuses targeting civilians, especially protesters, including shooting unarmed civilians, torture, beatings and arbitrary detention.

Public confidence in the National Police is comparatively high for the region. According to the Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), in 2010, Panama registered a score of 57.9[7] in terms of public confidence in the police force. In 2012 this had risen slightly to 59.8 points, one of the highest scores in the region (See Figure 3.).


Fig. 3 Panama Confidence in Police 2012

The Panamanian security forces cooperate with numerous international partners. They work closely with the United States, especially on anti-narcotics operations, where the SENAN provides support in interdiction, patrolling, photographing suspect areas, and identifying suspect aircraft. Panama is one of Central America’s main beneficiaries of US military/police aid, receiving over $54 million between 2008 and 2013.

Panama also cooperates closely with Colombia on border issues and has signed numerous bilateral security cooperation agreements, the most recent in 2011. In addition, Panama has bilateral counter narcotics agreements with the United Kingdom, Colombia, Mexico, Cuba, and Peru and is a member of the Central American Integration System (Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana-SICA). In 2011, SICA inaugurated the Regional Security Operations Centre (Centro Operativo de Seguridad Regional del Sistema de Integración Centroamericana) in Panama.  The base is designed as a coordination centre for the security forces of Panama, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic in their efforts to tackle organised crime and drug trafficking.

Panama has a large private security sector, with over twice as many private security personnel as police; 978 per 100,000 citizens as opposed to 423.

The Public Ministry’s National Strategic Plan for 2010-2014 (Plan Estratégico del Ministerio Público de Panamá: 2010-2014) identifies 15 areas targeted for improvement, with a particular focus on improving efforts to combat organised crime, corruption and cyber crime , improving the judicial system’s efficacy, offering better protection to victims, and strengthening and modernising institutions and the implementation of the adversarial legal system.

State of Security and Justice Sector Reform

Justice Sector Reform and Initiatives

The reforms currently in progress changing Panama’s inquisitorial justice system to an accusatorial system will involve a complete overhaul of the judicial sector, including the creation of new roles, procedures and principals (see Justice Institutions, above). The four-year process began in 2011 with a focus on the provinces of Veraguas and Cocle. This was followed by Los Santos and Herrea in 2012 with Chiriqui and Bocas del Torro scheduled to follow in 2013. The rest of the country will make the transition in 2014.

The United States has been closely involved in the process and Panama receives assistance and training in the transition from the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Judicial Transition Initiative, which is managed by the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI). 

According to the US State Department, the reform is expected to reduce pre-trial detention and Panama‘s judicial backlog.

Security Sector Reforms and Initiatives

The most radical overhaul of Panamanian security institutions came with the abolition of the military in 1990. Before the 1989 invasion, Panama’s security forces fell under one centralised organisation under the control of military dictator, Manuel Noriega. The Panamanian Defence Force was mostly a military organisation but also included police forces and a presidential guard. In addition to the creation of new security institutions, the post-invasion reform process included wide ranging attempts to depoliticise and demilitarise security institutions.

More recently, Panama’s security institutions have undergone significant reforms starting in 2008, including the merging of the coast guard and police air wing and the development of the border defence force.

In recent years, Panama has heavily invested in security institutions, infrastructure and equipment in an effort to modernise its security forces. Much of this has taken place with US support, such as from the CARSI—a program that has sent $496 million to the region in aid since 2008—and by working in partnership with agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the US Department of Homeland Security. While much of the reform attempt has focused on increased training and capacity for tackling drug trafficking and organised crime, there has also been serious investment in upgrading systems and equipment focused on improving community-based policing techniques, such as the development of a modern computer statistics system, COMPSTAT. The system is designed to collect crime statistics and record police response times. According to the US State Department, the system has increased the accountability of Panama’s police officers.

There have been recent attempts to pass a law reforming the police Internal Affairs unit (Asuntos Internos) but this has been stalled since 2012. However, the National Police has already begun implementing some of the proposed system’s policies and procedures, including increased civilian oversight of internal affairs investigations and standard disciplinary guidelines.

In 2011, Panama established a Regional Anti-Corruption Academy in conjunction with the UNODC. Members of Panama’s National Council for Transparency against Corruption (ConsejoNacional de Transparencia Contra la Corrupción) work with UNODC staff in targeting corruption and improving transparency not just in Panama but also in the wider region.

Parliamentary/Congressional Capacity for Oversight

The executive branch of Panamanian government consists of the President and the cabinet, which the president appoints. The legislative branch—the National Assembly—, which is elected every five years, is constitutionally independent and has the power to provide oversight of the executive. It has three commissions:  credentials, regulation, parliamentary ethics and proceedings; government, justice and constitutional affairs; and the budget.

However, the independence of the legislature from the executive has been criticised by civil society groups, who have accused members of acting primarily in their own political interests and/or those of the executive. Panamanian politics has a reputation for corruption, which could hamper oversight and independence.

Security and Justice Opportunities

Although Panama has not witnessed the sort of security crises seen elsewhere in Central America, it is geographically vulnerable, and its security situation could potentially deteriorate, especially if the underlying issues in its security and justice institutions are not addressed.

Chief among these concerns is corruption, which although not as endemic as elsewhere retains the ability to seriously undermine reform attempts. In 2012, Panama ranked 83rd out of 174 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index with a score of 38[8] . This was an improvement on the 2011 ranking and score for the country.

Panama has shown itself to be very open to engaging with international partners in both the areas of security and justice, and the government is investing heavily in reforms and capacity building.

Justice Sector Opportunities

The overhaul of the justice system is welcome and offers a key opportunity for engagement. The next few years will be critical to determining the future efficacy of Panama’s judicial system and represent an opening to build capacity, strengthen institutions, and address the underlying issues that currently undermine the system. Efforts could be made to ensure the reform is implemented effectively and help Panama see through and solidify potential gains.

Security Sector Opportunities

The Panamanian security forces have been open to cooperating with international partners and are willing recipients of foreign aid in capacity building and modernisation. Perhaps the greatest problem confronting the force, however, is corruption within its ranks that has proved detrimental to the fight against crime. Efforts could be made to ensure that the reform of the Internal Affairs unit of the police force is pushed through so that the body operates under civilian oversight. This would help toward professionalising the force and purging it of corrupt elements.

Another possibility for engagement on security issues lies with an initiative of the Office of Social Security  (Oficina de Desarrollo Social Seguro) of the Ministry of Social Development (Ministerio de Desarrollo Social), which is working with the Organisation of American States (OAS) programme Loving Peace (Armando Paz) on a social reinsertion programme for former gang members.

Civil Society Actors for Engagement

The Alianza Ciudadana Pro Justicia[9] (Pro Justice Citizen’s Alliance) is a civil society network that promotes judicial reforms and encourages citizen participation in the field.

The Fundacion Seguridad Ciudadana Pro Orden y Disciplina (The Pro Order and Discipline Citizen Security Foundation), proposes laws to strengthen security and encourage citizen participation.

The Gran Alianza Nacional por la Seguridad Ciudadana[10] (Grand National Alliance for Citizen Security) is a network of numerous civil society groups aiming to work with the government to tackle rising insecurity.

Comisión de Justicia y Paz[11] (Justice and Peace Commission) is a religious organisation that documents human rights abuses, offers legal advice and prisoner support, works with migrants and trafficking victims and participates in debates over political reforms.

The Concertación Nacional (National Coalition) is a key organisation that helps facilitate dialogue between civil society groups and the government.


Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2012–Panama,” September 2012

Procuraduria General de la Nación, “Plan Estratégico del Ministerio Público de Panamá: 2010-2014,” No publication year available

Small Arms Survey, “Small Arms Survey 2012: Moving Targets,” August 2012

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” December 2010

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in Panama, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” May 2011

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2012: Towards Equality of Opportunity,” January 2013

Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2012,” December 2012

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean, a Threat Assessment,” September 2012

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Homicide Statistics 2012,” Data set retrieved from

U.S. Department of State, “2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control,” March 2012

U.S. State Department, “International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 2: Money Laundering and Financial Crimes,” March 2012

U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” May 2012

World Economic Forum, “The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013,” September 2012


[1] These typically involve work placement programmes.

[2] A flag of convenience ship is one that flies the flag of a country other than the ship’s country of ownership.

[3] In 2011, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled documents taken from Reyes’ computers to be inadmissible as evidence because of procedural irregularities in the evidence gathering process.

[4] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher perception of insecurity

[5]  The first judicial district has two Superior Courts, one each to handle criminal and civil cases respectively. The remaining three districts just have one court to handle both types of case.

[6] The Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Government replaced the Ministry of Government and Justice.

[7] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher degree of confidence.

[8] Transparency International gives countries a score of 0-100 with 100 being the least corrupt.

[9] More information on their website:

[10] More information on their website:

[11] More information on their website:

Igarapé Institute

The Igarapé Institute is a southern think tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action on complex social challenges including global drug policy, citizen security and international cooperation. Its goal is to stimulate humane engagement on emerging security and development issues. Across all its programs, the Institute adopts a three-prong approach:

  1. Diagnose challenges through cutting-edge research;
  2. Trigger informed debate and action across public and private spheres; and
  3. Design tailor-made solutions that are people-centered.

The International Security Sector Advisory Team

The International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT) provides practical support to the international community in its efforts to improve security and justice, primarily in conflict-affected and fragile states. It does this by working with a group of member states and institutions to develop and promote good security and justice reform practices and principles, and by helping its members to build their capacity to support national and regional security and justice reform processes.