[ Country-by-Country Reports ]

PANAMA (TIER 2)   [Extracted from U.S. State Dept Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2009]

Panama is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation. Some Panamanian women are trafficked to Jamaica, Europe, and Israel for commercial sexual exploitation, but most victims are trafficked to and within the country into Panama’s sex trade. NGOs report that some Panamanian children, mostly young girls, are trafficked into domestic servitude. Government agencies indicate that indigenous girls may be trafficked by their parents into prostitution in Darien province. Most foreign sex trafficking victims are adult women from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and neighboring Central American countries; some victims migrate voluntarily to Panama to work but are subsequently forced into prostitution. Weak controls along Panama’s borders make the nation an easy transit point for trafficked persons.

The Government of Panama does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. In 2008, the government showed some anti-trafficking progress by enacting a legislative reform package to strengthen Panama’s anti-trafficking laws, and by increasing prevention efforts. The government also eliminated its alternadora visa category, which had been used to traffic foreign women, mostly Colombians, into Panama’s sex trade. However, vigorous government efforts to prosecute human trafficking crimes and provide adequate shelter, particularly for adult victims, remained lacking.

Recommendations for Panama: Amend anti-trafficking laws to prohibit forced labor, including involuntary domestic servitude; intensify law enforcement efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses and convict and sentence trafficking offenders, including any public officials complicit with trafficking activity; dedicate more resources for victim services; and develop a formal system for identifying trafficking victims among vulnerable populations, particularly women in prostitution.

The Government of Panama increased its ability to investigate and prosecute trafficking crimes during the reporting period. In June 2008, the government published Law 26, a penal code reform package, to strengthen Panama’s anti-trafficking laws and prohibit the internal sex trafficking of adults, a gap which existed under previous law. The new law will enter into force in June 2009. Article 178 of the new code criminalizes internal and transnational trafficking of persons for the purpose of sexual slavery or unauthorized paid sexual activity, through means of deceit, coercion, or retention of identity documents and prescribes penalties ranging from six to nine years’ imprisonment. Additionally, Article 180 of the new code prohibits the internal and transnational trafficking of minors for commercial sexual exploitation, prescribing prison terms of four to 10 years’ imprisonment. The above punishments are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for rape. Panamanian law, however, does not specifically prohibit human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor, including domestic servitude. In September 2008, the government began investigating a case of potential labor trafficking activity, in which 52 Panamanian laborers were transported to Laurel, Mississippi, for work in a transformer manufacturing facility. During the reporting period, the government investigated 11 sex trafficking cases, resulting in two criminal trafficking convictions with sentences of 60 months’ imprisonment each. This compares to 13 sex trafficking cases investigated and one trafficking offender convicted during the previous year.

In March 2008, the Department of Judicial Investigations created a specialized unit to investigate trafficking cases. While a lack of coordination among police, prosecutors, and immigration authorities on anti-trafficking cases remains a concern, the Panamanian attorney general developed a computerized information network to promote the sharing of information between prosecutors and other agencies. The government maintained anti-trafficking training efforts, and the attorney general decreed that one prosecutor in each of Panama’s 13 provinces should be trained to prosecute trafficking crimes. An NGO reported anecdotally that some police officers sexually exploited prostituted minors in exchange for providing protection, but it was unclear whether higher-level officials were aware of such activity. The government opened no formal trafficking-related corruption investigations during the reporting period.

The Panamanian government sustained its efforts to assist trafficking victims during the reporting period, though overall victim services -- particularly those for adults -- remained inadequate. Child trafficking victims accessed basic care at 43 government-funded shelters across the country. Although the government did not provide dedicated services for trafficking victims, it funded an NGO-operated shelter with dedicated housing and social services for child trafficking victims. Services and shelter care for adult trafficking victims remained limited, though newly enacted Immigration Law 3 required that the government build a dedicated shelter for adult victims. The government housed victims in hotels on an ad hoc basis. In one case, several foreign trafficking victims were housed at a police station because there was no place to take them. The government did not employ systematic procedures for identifying trafficking victims among vulnerable populations, but did require that women entering the country under entertainment visas attend a seminar on trafficking in persons. The high number of women in prostitution in the country may warrant the development of more thorough victim identification procedures. Panamanian authorities encouraged victims to assist with the investigation and prosecution of their traffickers. The government allowed foreign victims to remain in Panama during investigation of their cases by judicial order, but did not provide other legal alternatives to their return to countries where they may face hardship or retribution. Moreover, prosecutors indicated that some foreign victims were repatriated involuntarily before they could fully assist with legal efforts against their traffickers. Victims were not penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked. Panamanian consular officials were trained to aid Panamanians trafficked abroad, and provided repatriation assistance, including airfare, housing, and medical care.

The government increased efforts to prevent human trafficking during the reporting period. In response to past reports of sex trafficking of foreign women holding alternadora visas, the government terminated this visa category as part of an immigration reform package that came into force in August 2008. While foreign women in the nation’s sex trade may still apply for “entertainer” visas, the government increased efforts to prevent human trafficking by creating a registry of businesses requesting such visas and instituting tougher conditions for their issuance. No entertainer visas were issued under the new law during the reporting period. In 2008, the government conducted awareness-raising efforts and collaborated with NGOs and international organizations on other anti-trafficking prevention projects. Official recognition of human trafficking crimes appears to be increasing, though government officials tend to view Panama as principally a transit country. In June 2008, the government released a three-year national plan to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of minors, and a small office was established to implement the plan. In an effort to reduce demand for commercial sex acts, the government conducted media campaigns warning that commercial sexual exploitation is a prosecutable crime. The government’s overall anti-trafficking efforts continued to suffer from limited resources, and a measure to dedicate one dollar from the tax imposed on each visiting tourist to anti-trafficking projects remained mired in an interagency process after five years.