A newly released cable from the US embassy in Panama shows how the US sees efforts to clean up the Tocumen international airport smugglers den as vital to secure the US border against illegal immigration.
In the cable, then-ambassador Barbara Stephenson describes how Tocumen has grown exponentially over the previous years, but that drug trafficking, cash smuggling and human trafficking have grown at a similar rate. This, the embassy claims, makes it easy for alien smugglers to use Panama as a hub to get illegal aliens into the US.
Ironically, after earlier complaining about president Martinelli asking the US to tap the phones of political opponents and activists, ambassador Stephenson is here seen asking the Panamanians for passenger lists of ALL incoming flights to Tocumen:
For CBP, alien smuggling presents the most serious problem. Passengers enter Tocumen on arriving flights without customs or immigration inspection and are free to wander about the duty free "sterile area" as they wait to catch connecting flights. According to post's CBP attachC), smugglers regularly fly into Tocumen, meet their charges in the transfer area and give them fraudulent travel documents and airline tickets before both parties depart on connecting flights. In effect, it is possible for someone to depart their country of origin, transit Panama, and not have to face any kind of inspection until they show up at a U.S. border post. A common route is for migrants to transit Tocumen on their way to Mexico and ultimately, an illegal entry across the U.S. southern land border. In the short term, CBP is working to augment the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), which would provide U.S. authorities a passenger manifest for all flights inbound to Tocumen.
The other subject the Americans have issues with is cash smuggling:
The flow of illicit U.S. dollars, both smuggled and openly declared, represents another threat. DEA estimates that a single bulk cash smuggling operation of four individuals, including the President's second cousin, Ramon Martinelli, moved up to $30 million per month through Tocumen last year. (Note: post has no information linking President Martinelli to money laundering). Meanwhile, customs seizures of undeclared cash amounted to only $4.5 million in 2008. Record keeping at customs is entirely paper based, leading to an inevitable loss of documentation and plentiful opportunities for bribing customs officials. While customs officials are routinely bribed to let through suitcases full of cash, it is not uncommon for travelers to bring in declared amounts of $250,000. Legitimate large cash transfers can be partly explained by the proximity of the Colon Free Zone (CFZ), where a significant percentage of transactions are on a cash basis. Even here, however, crime, corruption and free enterprise mix. CFZ businessmen have related to embassy officers instances in which travelers who declare large amounts of cash are robbed after departing Tocumen - the robbers having been tipped off by corrupt customs officials.
That scheme - customs tipping off highway robbers - is as old as the cash reporting requirement, and a great example of how anti-money laundering financial regulation provokes more and new crimes, while doing very little to stop the cash smuggling itself, as the cable implicitly admits.
Other interesting notes include naming tourism minister Salomon Shamah as linked to drug trafficking, and the Motta and Waked families implied in money laundering. The Mottas also own Copa Airlines, which earlier in the cable is described as one of the driving forces of Tocumen's rapid expansion.
Interestingly, during Martinelli's election campaign similar comments could be heard. Jaime Figueroa, for example, campaigned for Martinelli and was then the designated tourism minister. During a seminar this journalist attended, Figueroa railed against how the airport was being managed and said it was being run by "a mafia". After Martinelli's electoral victory, he dumped Figueroa and appointed Shamah as tourism minister instead.
Nobody, the ambassador notes, seems to be in any particular hurry to do something about Tocumen being a haven for money launderers and smugglers:
Despite the growing problems, Panama has shown a typical reluctance to peel back the lid on an enterprise which appears to be benefiting all parties involved. The duty-free zone at Tocumen is a good example of the kind of live-and-let live attitude permeating the airport. The duty free zone has few rules and little oversight, and is controlled by the Waked and Motta families, who paid $173 million for a ten-year concession. In the same manner as alien smugglers exploit the transfer area, it is possible for transferring passengers to enter the duty free zone without inspection, carrying virtually any amount of cash. This cash can then be laundered through the duty free shops, which are not subject to serious regulatory scrutiny. Anecdotally, the traveler at Tocumen looking for food or something to read will find that the options are restricted to one Dunkin Donuts, one coffee shop, and zero bookstores; at the same time, it is impossible to avoid the polo shirts, jewelry, electronics and perfume available at every turn. 8. (S) Comment: There are signs that the GOP understands the importance of Tocumen to their status as a regional center for transit of goods and people. The board of directors at Tocumen includes the Deputy Finance Minister Frank De Lima and the Deputy Minister of the Presidency, Maria Fabrega, both of whose bosses are among the most powerful leaders in the Martinelli administration. Yet the board also includes Tourism Minister Salomon Shamah, suspected of links to drug traffickers.
She should probably also have mentioned that these so-called "duty-free shops" sell many products, like tobacco, at prices that are higher than those in regular Panamanian tiendas, which makes their legitimacy even more questionable.
The Waked family also owns the newspapers La Estrella de Panama and El Siglo, as well as businesses in the Colón Free Zone.
The policy to have three letter agencies operate in countries like Panama to keep the borders up north safe is not exclusively American. Canada, for example, also has customs people working here to check container cargo for smuggling of everything from animals (protected species) to drugs to other contraband like counterfeit goods.
The full text of the cable can be found at the WikiLeaks website.