By: Izzy Ullmann
The human trafficking story in Panama is one I have heard before, but never officially: human trafficking does not exist. According to Jenise Lawrence*, an American attorney working to combat human trafficking in Panama, this is the story that the government puts out.
And yet, the US 2015 Annual Trafficking in Persons Report reports Panama as a source, transit, and destination country for primarily sex, but also labor trafficking.
I sat down with Jenise Lawrence* in Panama City to learn about the dynamics that she has noted working on this issue (almost solely in the country). As she explained, prostitution in Panama is legal above the age of 18, thus easing traffickers’ ability to sell their victims. About 80% of those trafficked into the sex trade are from Latin America and the Caribbean. Many are brought through a specific visa program, called alternadora, which the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs explains specifically allows foreign national women to work in entertainment establishments [Read more here]. In a leaked report of the US Trafficking in Persons Office’s visit to Panama in 2006, Attorney General Ana Matilde Gomez emphatically stated her distaste for what she deemed, “the alternadora visa for prostitutes,” and wished to speak to the president about abolishing the visa program. According to Lawrence, however, 12 years later the visa is still being used rampantly.
As Lawrence explained, different mafias control much of the sex industry, which serves as one of the primary reasons that the government is paralyzingly tentative to intervene. She mapped out for me the domains of mafia- controlled prostitution.
Venezuelans and Columbians exert a great degree of control over the sex industry in Panama City and the Colón Free Trade Zone. In the Chinese community, there are a few families with concentrated power. These families go to China and bring back people who are willing to be indentured servants. They are then brought to work in Chinito stores for no pay and are provided housing above or behind the shops, subject to debt bondage. As the Russian embassy has gained in power in Panama, there has additionally been an increased presence of the Russian mafia bringing eastern European girls to the country for trafficked prostitution.
As she described it, human trafficking exists as a pretty well organized criminal network. The industry has been working to improve its sex-tourism, and has coordinated taxi drivers and hotel managers and staff to direct wealthy businessmen to prostitutes, all the while making a cut of the profits.
In 2014, Panama’s Ministry of Tourism launched a measly effort to raise awareness about human trafficking with posters in the airport, but this was the extent of the campaign. It was catalyzed by a scandal in which a Columbian couple was caught kidnapping children, killing them, and selling their organs. This enraged people in Panama City where the scandal occurred, and provided fuel for the campaign, but the charges “mysteriously” were dropped and neither of the couple was prosecuted.
This reflects a much larger issue that Panama faces of a debauched legal system. Due process is typically nonexistent and according to several locals, the corrupt police force accept bribes for most crimes. Lawrence explained that along the Columbian border, the Panamanian guards are being constantly paid off by the Columbian traffickers to ensure that they do not expose the criminals.
Another issue that feeds into the exploitation of humans is Panama’s identity as a destination and transit country for immigration. Because of its relatively stable economy, the World Bank calculated the net migration to Panama in 2012 as about 28,105, which (factoring in those that are emigrating from the country) comes to about 100 people immigrating into Panama per day. According to Lawrence, about 60% of them plan to stay, while 40% are headed towards Mexico or the United States. Despite this high number of incomers, Lawrence explains that Panama only has two official shelters for incoming migrants: one which hosts 25 women, and another which holds 65 men. When these shelters reach capacity, government officials drive immigrants in cattle trucks to a central location where they are dumped and told they have 48 hours to leave the country. According to Lawrence, “The problem is so overwhelming to the government.” She continued, “[Immigrants] are not allowed to settle. They are all illegal but the country does not know what to do. The people do not have papers for Panama, they are not allowed to go into Costa Rica or any other country that would allow them transit through Panama or to stay in Panama, and Panama does not have the resources to send them back to their country of origin.” And few people do leave immediately. Many of these people are expertly linked into underground networks of trafficking, especially for sex.
With limited border patrol, trafficking a person into the country is fairly easy. Lawrence explained that people are trafficked over the Columbian border, through the airports, and in cargo ships through the Panama Canal. She described a survivor from Malaysia who she’d met in an orphanage who had escaped her container on a ship and swam to the edge of the Canal to freedom.
But it is not just foreign nationals; Panamanians are being trafficked too. Lawrence told me a story about two indigenous girls who were simply riding in a taxi one day and were kidnapped by their taxi driver, taken to the border where they were raped and drugged and then forced to work in a push button hotel [essentially a secret room with a menu of women who you can purchase at an hourly rate]. Below is a pretty gross video about push buttons.
While the US Trafficking in Persons Report for the past 10 or so years has placed Panama as Tier 2, and commended it for some steps towards combatting trafficking, Lawrence explains how each of Panama’s supposed efforts are moot. The 2015 TIP report says that in 2014, “authorities investigated 11 new trafficking cases, four for sex trafficking and seven for labor trafficking,” and has reported back similar numbers in the 2008, 2011, and 2014 reports, but according to Lawrence, “not one person has been prosecuted.” She explained that the judicial system and enforcement of component of law enforcement is essentially nonexistent. This sentiment was reinforced by many people I spoke to in Panama. The 2015 report also details a “dedicated helpline for reporting human trafficking cases,” but Lawrence counters that, “in reality, there is no phone number or anyone dedicated to the hotline, and if there was, I am sure they were not trained correctly.”
But underlying this slew of issues, Lawrence explains that there is a general apathy about human trafficking. Most people do not know it exists, and those that do are are plagued by the its-not-my-problem mentality. This blockades the serious action needed.
From mafia-controlled areas of the country to an overwhelming immigration problem to an uncoordinated and corrupt justice system to an apathetic public, Panama sure has a lot of issues on its hands. But they do seem solvable. Awareness needs to be raised more fully, especially in schools so that students know about the potential risks that could befall them. And the judicial and legal systems need to be made more accountable, through police trainings, crackdowns on corruption, and instilling an attitude of responsibility among law enforcement and justice officials.
Contrary to public knowledge, human trafficking exists in Panama. Foreigners like Lawrence could continue to enter the country and try to determine ways of combatting the human slavery, but the Panamanian people ultimately need to figure out how to improve their own system to eradicate this problem and protect their citizens and immigrants.
Read more about Panama’s human trafficking via The Protection Project’s report.
*name has been changed for anonymity to allow her to maintain legal status in the country