Panama is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Most Panamanian trafficking victims are exploited in sex trafficking in the country. The majority of foreign trafficking victims found in Panama are adult women from Colombia, neighboring Central American countries, and the Dominican Republic. Most of these women migrate voluntarily to Panama for employment, but are subsequently exploited in sex trafficking, or to a lesser extent, in domestic servitude. In recent years, authorities have identified several East European women working in nightclubs as potential sex trafficking victims. Panamanian girls and young women, mostly from indigenous communities, are subjected to domestic servitude in the country. Men and women from China are subjected to debt bondage in Panama, including in supermarkets, laundries, and other small businesses operated by Chinese citizens. Authorities reported cases of traffickers subjecting men from Colombia and from Middle Eastern countries to forced labor in restaurants; in some cases, restaurant owners call immigration officials to deport victims after they have been exploited for several months. An international organization also identified cases of debt bondage of Indian men in door-to-door peddling. Men from Colombia and from other Central American countries, particularly Nicaragua, are also vulnerable to labor trafficking in Panama in construction, mining, and other sectors. Media reports indicated that some trafficking victims transited Panama en route to other countries, including Colombian women exploited in sex trafficking in the Caribbean.
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. Panamanian authorities investigated seven potential trafficking cases, convicted three sex trafficking offenders, and continued public awareness efforts. Despite these efforts, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing anti-trafficking efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore, Panama is placed on Tier 2 Watch List. The government-operated trafficking victim assistance unit and fund, both required by Panama’s 2011 anti-trafficking law, were not functional, raising concerns about a lack of political will to adequately assist victims. Victim identification and protection efforts remained weak, in part due to some government officials’ limited understanding of human trafficking. Authorities did not report identifying or assisting any Panamanian children in commercial sexual exploitation.
Recommendations for Panama:
Increase funding for specialized victim services in partnership with civil society, including through implementing the dedicated victim assistance fund as required by law; verify through ongoing oversight that government officials refer identified victims to appropriate services, including by assigning adequate funds and personnel to the unit for trafficking victim identification and assistance; intensify proactive law enforcement efforts to investigate and prosecute both labor and sex trafficking crimes, and convict and sentence trafficking offenders; create and institutionalize government-provided training for police officers, prosecutors, immigration officials, social workers, and other government officials in anti-trafficking laws and victim identification and care guidelines; and strengthen interagency coordination mechanisms, including outside the capital.
The Government of Panama made uneven law enforcement efforts against human trafficking. Law 79 of 2011 prohibits all forms of trafficking, with prescribed sentences ranging 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 the evidence of exploitation—as forms of trafficking, offenses that are not considered trafficking under the 2000 UN TIP Protocol. Panamanian officials categorized cases of human trafficking that did not involve movement as different crimes, such as commercial sexual exploitation, and treated these differently from trafficking cases involving movement.
In 2013, Panamanian authorities investigated seven new trafficking cases, four for sex trafficking, and three for labor trafficking. The government initiated no new prosecutions and convicted three sex trafficking offenders during the reporting period, equal to the number of convictions during the previous reporting period. The government did not report how many—if any—cases of internal sex trafficking or forced labor not involving movement it investigated or prosecuted in 2013, nor did it report any convictions for such crimes. Panama continued to lack a dedicated anti-trafficking police unit; the organized crime prosecutorial unit was responsible for investigating movement-based trafficking cases. The lack of systematic data collection for trafficking crimes remained an impediment to assessing anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. Many officials demonstrated a lack of understanding of human trafficking. Panamanian prosecutors cooperated with Colombian officials on two trafficking investigations. The Government of Panama did not report any new investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking. The case of six former immigration officials allegedly involved in labor trafficking that was dismissed in 2012 remained under appeal during the year. Panamanian authorities did not report training officials on human trafficking, though international organizations and foreign governments organized and funded anti-trafficking training sessions in 2013 for hundreds of Panamanian officials, including police, prosecutors, and immigration officers.
The Government of Panama did not adequately protect trafficking victims. During the reporting period, Panamanian authorities reported identifying and assisting a decreased number of trafficking victims, and victim assistance mechanisms required by Panamanian law were not implemented. Government officials identified 16 trafficking victims in 2013, but did not report how many were exploited in sex trafficking or labor trafficking, how many were adults or children, or how many—if any—were Panamanian citizens. During the previous reporting period, authorities identified 45 foreign women in prostitution as potential sex trafficking victims. The government did not report identifying any children in commercial sexual exploitation in 2013. NGOs reported that the government had a limited ability to identify children in forced labor, particularly in the informal sector and in rural and indigenous areas. Research conducted in 2013 found that most government officials did not know how to identify human trafficking and that some officials stigmatized potential sex trafficking victims and blamed them for their exploitation, particularly if they had initially agreed to engage in prostitution. The government collaborated with an international organization to publish guidelines for the identification of and provision of assistance to trafficking victims in 2013, but it was unclear to what extent authorities used these guidelines to identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations, such as detained undocumented migrants and people in prostitution.
Law 79 required the government to operate a unit for trafficking victim identification and assistance comprised of staff from government agencies; however, this unit was not functional. Likewise, the anti-trafficking law required the government to create a specific fund for assistance to trafficking victims, but the $200,000 earmarked for this purpose remained unobligated during the reporting period. The government funded no specialized services for trafficking victims. Though few victims were identified during the year, funding for services remained inadequate. Authorities did not report referring any potential victims to NGOs for care, and NGOs did not report providing services to any trafficking victims during the year. Prosecutors reported referring two sex trafficking victims to a temporary government shelter for female victims of violence, while shelter staff reported assisting five victims, highlighting discrepancies in data. The government did not report what services it provided, if any, to other victims identified during the year. Authorities reported that male trafficking victims could be housed in a migrant detention facility, an inappropriate treatment for victims of trafficking, but did not report providing shelter to any male trafficking victims in 2013.
Authorities did not report how many victims received medical, psychological, or legal services during the reporting period, and there were no long-term services available to trafficking victims. Panamanian authorities encouraged victims to assist with the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenders, although officials did not report how many victims did so in 2013. The perception of impunity, a slow-moving justice system, and the lack of protection for witnesses were cited as obstacles to reporting human trafficking. Panamanian law provided legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims of trafficking to countries where they might face hardship or retribution. The government did not report issuing any temporary resident permits for trafficking victims during the reporting period. Trafficking victims were not known to have been penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking.
During the reporting period, the Government of Panama made some efforts to prevent trafficking, but did not fully implement its anti-trafficking action plan. The government’s anti-trafficking commission was responsible for implementing the 2012-2017 national anti-trafficking action plan. NGOs and international organizations noted that implementation of the plan was weak in 2013 and that lack of dedicated staff impeded effective interagency coordination. Authorities conducted several public awareness events as part of an annual month-long trafficking awareness campaign and continued a campaign against sexual exploitation of minors. Child sex tourism is prohibited by law, and authorities worked closely with U.S. law enforcement to investigate cases, resulting in the arrest of three U.S. citizens for child sex tourism in Panama. The government did not report efforts to reduce the demand for forced labor.