PANAMA – Tier 2
Panama is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Panamanian women are vulnerable to sex trafficking in other countries, including The Bahamas and Guyana. In Panama, most identified trafficking victims are foreign adults exploited in sex trafficking, especially women from Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Traffickers recruit female victims with promises of good jobs and high salaries in the housekeeping and restaurant industries, as well as for modeling and prostitution, but exploit them in sex trafficking or, to a lesser extent, domestic servitude. Nicaraguan and, to a lesser extent, Colombian men are subjected to labor trafficking in construction, agriculture, mining, and other sectors; most labor trafficking victims come from Nicaragua via bus and enter Panama from Costa Rica. Colombian refugees are also vulnerable to trafficking due to their lack of knowledge of the refugee process and irregular status. In recent years, men and women from China have been subjected to debt bondage in supermarkets, laundries, and other small businesses operated by Chinese citizens; traffickers have subjected Colombian men to forced labor in restaurants; an international organization has identified cases of debt bondage among Indian men in door-to-door peddling; and authorities have identified potential sex trafficking victims among Eastern European women working in nightclubs. Men from the United States have been investigated as child sex tourists in Panama. Panamanian and European officials report some men and women from Central America who transit Panama en route to the Caribbean or Europe are subjected to sex or labor trafficking in their destination countries. In previous years, immigration officials have been investigated for labor trafficking.
Traffickers often charge foreign workers exorbitant travel and lodging fees to keep them in debt bondage, often restricting victims’ movement until they pay off such debts. Victims report traffickers threaten to harm family members in their countries of origin if they do not comply. Traffickers increasingly exploit sex trafficking victims in private residences, as opposed to brothels or bars, which makes such offenses harder to detect. Traffickers from Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Venezuela, and Panama operated in Panama during the reporting period. In a change from previous years, government officials report more traffickers are creating legal businesses as facades to mask their income from trafficking. In addition, more identified traffickers had links to international organized criminal groups than in past years.
The Government of Panama does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Authorities identified significantly more trafficking victims and initiated more trafficking investigations than the previous reporting period and continued to provide and fund anti-trafficking training for officials. However, victim protection measures remained severely inadequate; the government did not allocate funding to its trafficking victim assistance fund, and the majority of identified victims did not receive services beyond an initial medical evaluation. The government convicted fewer traffickers, and a lack of coordination between ministries and resource constraints hampered the effectiveness of the national anti-trafficking commission.
Recommendations for Panama:
Significantly increase funding for specialized victim services, including by allocating funds to and implementing the dedicated victim assistance fund and funding civil society organizations to provide services to victims; intensify law enforcement efforts to proactively investigate and prosecute labor and sex trafficking crimes—including cases involving Panamanian victims exploited within the country—and convict and sentence traffickers, including complicit government officials; strengthen interagency coordination mechanisms, including between regional law enforcement, and institute standardized protocols on victim identification, referral procedures, and data reporting to the national commission; train officials—including border and immigration officials—on victim identification and referral procedures, especially among populations vulnerable to trafficking; develop and institutionalize government-provided anti-trafficking training for officials; in partnership with civil society, make specialized services available to male victims; continue efforts to implement the 2012-2017 anti-trafficking national action plan and allocate specific funds to the national commission for execution of the plan; educate refugees on the processes to apply for asylum and citizenship; and amend the anti-trafficking law to adopt a definition of human trafficking consistent with the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.
The government modestly increased its anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. Law 79 of 2011 prohibits all forms of trafficking, prescribing sentences from six to 30 years’ imprisonment, depending on the nature of the offense. These punishments are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. This law also prohibits moving adults for the purposes of prostitution (without requiring the use of force, fraud, or coercion) and illegal adoption (without requiring evidence of exploitation) as forms of trafficking, offenses that are not considered human trafficking under the 2000 UN TIP Protocol. Although law 79 does not define trafficking to require movement of the victim, Panamanian officials continued to investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases that did not involve movement as other crimes, such as commercial sexual exploitation. Officials speculated some traffickers who committed child sex trafficking, which carries sentences of 20 to 30 years’ imprisonment, were charged with child sexual exploitation, which carries lighter sentences of eight to 10 years’ imprisonment. Article 89 of law 3 establishes financial penalties for employers who confiscate foreign workers’ identity documents.
During the reporting period, authorities initiated 17 investigations—10 for sex trafficking and seven for labor trafficking—and detained 38 traffickers, a modest increase from 11 new investigations the previous reporting period. While it initiated three prosecutions compared with none the previous reporting period, the government convicted only one sex trafficker who was released pending appeal, compared with five convictions the previous reporting period with sentences between 10 years’ and 12 years and six months’ imprisonment. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses. Officials continued to detain two suspected labor traffickers in a case from the previous reporting period, pending additional evidence. The national police had between nine and 12 officers who specialized in trafficking investigations, and they worked with the organized crime office to investigate trafficking cases. Panamanian authorities cooperated with Bahamian officials on one sex trafficking investigation. The government funded and conducted several trainings and awareness sessions on human trafficking for officials, and it provided financial or in-kind support for other anti-trafficking trainings led by NGOs.
The government increased victim identification efforts but continued to identify trafficking victims through movement-based crimes, and victim services remained inadequate. The government identified 56 victims—54 foreigners and two Panamanians, 49 victims of sex trafficking and seven of forced labor—more than double the 25 victims identified the previous reporting period. In one case, 11 Venezuelan and one Colombian woman paid approximately $3,800 each to be smuggled into Panama for jobs as models and waitresses. Upon arrival, the traffickers forced the women to perform commercial sex acts at a local bar to cover the cost of “rent.” Officials referred all 56 victims identified to the victim and witness protection office’s technical unit (UPAVIT) for psycho-social evaluation, but the government did not provide or fund trafficking-specific shelters or victim services. Three of the 56 victims chose to receive short-term shelter at a government facility for female victims of domestic and sexual abuse; many victims chose to reside with family or friends, due to the shelter’s strict security policies. Victims were not permitted to leave the shelter unchaperoned, and they were only allowed to leave with an escort for official affairs, such as to assist with law enforcement investigations. In 2015, authorities identified land outside the capital for the construction of a shelter dedicated to trafficking victims. The government committed funds to construct the shelter but did not begin construction or secure funding for the shelter’s operation and maintenance. There were no government shelters, NGO shelters, or specialized services available for adult male victims. Some NGOs who assisted refugees and irregular migrants have assisted male trafficking victims with placement in local hotels for short-term shelter; one male victim received legal assistance from an NGO during the reporting period. The government provided neither long-term services nor permanent residency to any trafficking victims. Due to the lack of shelters and victim services, many victims requested repatriation assistance, which limited the provision of follow-up assistance.
The Ministry of Health provided training on the identification of trafficking victims to 70 hospital workers and health care staff, including those who conducted mandatory health screenings of foreign women holding entertainment worker’s visas, a population vulnerable to trafficking. The training also addressed the identification of victims in domestic servitude and forced begging. An international organization developed protocols to protect victims and reduce trauma during psychological interviews and provided training manuals on these procedures to all five UPAVIT units, which implemented the protocols. However, the government did not have systematic procedures to proactively identify victims among vulnerable populations, such as people in prostitution and undocumented migrants in detention. The government did not implement guidelines for victim identification and protection that an international organization had drafted and published during the previous reporting period. Panamanian authorities took written statements from victims and typically did not encourage them to participate further in the investigation and prosecution of their traffickers. While victims could file civil suits against traffickers, no victims did so during the reporting period. The government did not implement a 2013 law mandating that any assets seized that were derived from human trafficking activities be allocated to provide services for trafficking victims. Panamanian law provides short-term legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims to countries where they might face hardship or retribution, including provisional residency for between three and 12 months; it is unclear if any victims availed themselves of this service during the reporting period. The government, with assistance from foreign law enforcement, repatriated one Panamanian sex trafficking victim from The Bahamas. While there were no reports of victims penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking, insufficient efforts to identify victims and screen vulnerable populations for indicators of trafficking may have led to some victims being penalized.
The government sustained prevention efforts. Government ministries continued to implement the 2012-2017 anti-trafficking national action plan. The Ministry of Public Security disbursed $105,000 from its 2016 budget to create an office for the national anti-trafficking commission. The commission met five times during the reporting period but lacked funding, which hampered its ability to coordinate anti-trafficking trainings for officials and conduct prevention efforts. Interagency coordination remained weak, due in large part to the lack of standardized protocols for conducting and reporting activities across agencies. Individual government institutions and international organizations used their own funds to conduct anti-trafficking activities. Several government ministries conducted awareness raising events, including radio and television interviews with members of the commission, and disseminated brochures and banners with the number of the anti-trafficking helpline. The labor ministry implemented a “Know your rights” campaign to inform workers—including foreign migrants in Panama and Panamanians preparing to migrate—of their rights as workers. The government made efforts to reduce the demand for forced labor and commercial sex acts; as part of its national action plan to eradicate child labor, it held several national awareness campaigns to reduce civil society’s acceptance of child labor and forced labor. There were no reports of child sex tourism during the reporting period, but the Panamanian Commission against Sexual Exploitation Crimes continued its campaign against the sexual exploitation of minors—including child sex trafficking—in collaboration with tourism authorities. The government provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.