Panama bust reveals trafficking’s slow lane

Times Staff Writer

Call them “the not ready for prime time traffickers.”

That’s how Panamanian and U.S. authorities are describing alleged functionaries of a Mexican drug cartel that lost a $270-million load of cocaine in a colossal bust off Panama’s Pacific coast last month.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 6, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Cocaine bust: A caption in Monday’s Section A with an article about a large drug seizure off the coast of Panama referred to the Coast Guardsman in the photo as an officer. He was a Coast Guard petty officer second class.

In interviews here, officials were practically shaking their heads over the carelessness and inattention to detail by the Sinaloa-based cartel during the two months that a pair of alleged lieutenants spent in Panama City arranging the Colombia-to-Mexico shipment.

The big break in the case, officials said, came shortly after the two men arrived in town, when Panamanian police got a tip from a “walk-in” source in this city’s huge shipping industry. His suspicions were apparently aroused by the fact that the men’s company was leasing metal cargo containers in the free-trade zone of Colon -- but had no apparent plans to fill them with cargo.


But the classic moment came several weeks later, when U.S. Coast Guard officers and sailors boarded the ship the men had bought, a 300-foot Panamanian-flagged cargo vessel called the Gatun.

Finding drugs on board was no sure thing, because traffickers find ingenious ways to hide their cargo behind false floors and walls, or submerge it in fuel tanks, or weld it inside heavy machinery, or embed it in cans of tuna or jars of marmalade.

But this time it was easy. U.S. Coast Guard and Panamanian officials noticed that customs seals on two of the 12 metal cargo containers on the Gatun had been improperly broken. When they opened the doors, bales of cocaine came tumbling out. Officials estimated the haul at 20 tons.

The biggest bonus for law enforcement officials may have been the laptop computer that one of the suspects, Jesus Mondragon, allegedly had in his possession when he was arrested at the airport in Panama City. Authorities say it contained a treasure trove of information that could lead to more arrests.

“I think he showed an excess of confidence,” a top anti-drug prosecutor, Jose Abel Almengor, said in an interview.


Power shift

The bust, and an emerging portrait of the cartel allegedly headed by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada as a gang that at least in this case couldn’t shoot straight, offers a snapshot of the changing roles in the region’s drug trafficking. It appears that the assumption of power by Mexican cartels from Colombian traffickers -- who once exclusively managed the transit of big cocaine loads to Mexico or the U.S. -- is hitting some snags.


Whether Zambada’s men botched the deal or not, the seizure has raised fears that a bloodbath could ensue in Panama if, as expected, Mexican gangsters revisit the scene to exact revenge and settle scores. That’s been traffickers’ practice in the past when cocaine loads were lost along the U.S.-Mexico border or in the Caribbean.

“It’s obvious that something went wrong for the narcos,” Almengor said. “In any business, when something goes wrong there are consequences.”

Said one foreign counter-narcotics official: “This could stir things up quite a bit.”

It all began this year, when the two alleged traffickers, Mondragon and Jose Nunez, both Mexican nationals, arrived in Panama. Officials say they came to set up a front company called Marine Management & Chartering whose real purpose was to buy the Gatun for $3 million and use it to move drugs.

The plan called for the ship to pick up cargo containers in Colon, on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, then transit the 50-mile waterway and sail south to pick up the multi-ton load of cocaine off the Pacific coast of Colombia.

The ship would then head north to deliver the drugs to the cartel at the Mexican port of Topolobampo in Sinaloa state, according to law enforcement sources here.

Containerized cocaine is no novelty. As much as four-fifths of all Colombian cocaine is shipped to the United States via Central America and Mexico aboard fishing vessels, so-called go-fast boats, or hidden on cargo ships like the Gatun. A decade ago, most traffic was airborne, before tighter aerial surveillance forced traffickers to change tactics.


But the tip about the men’s apparent disinterest in actually putting any cargo in the containers kicked off an investigation that involved Panamanian authorities and members of a multinational counter-narcotics task force called Operation Panama Express, which includes the United States. The team investigated the company and began monitoring the two men’s activities. Mondragon was found to have a U.S. criminal record for drug trafficking and robbery and to have used various aliases, officials said.

Colombians involved in narco-logistics are usually careful to use intermediaries who run seemingly legitimate businesses and who have no rap sheets, officials said. Colombians also send a second layer of “supervisors” to make sure their on-the-ground logisticians aren’t cooperating with law enforcement, miscounting the drugs or otherwise making errors.


Red flag

Before the March 18 bust, the Gatun had already made several trips from Guyana through the Panama Canal and then up the Pacific coast of Mexico to Sinaloa.

That raised another red flag because Guyana, on the Caribbean coast, has become a drug trafficking hub in recent years, as has neighboring Venezuela, according to U.S. and Colombian law enforcement authorities.

The task force tracked the Gatun as it traveled through the canal March 16, then veered south early the next day, allegedly to pick up the load of cocaine. Through unspecified surveillance methods, officials detected several trips by fast boats leaving Colombia’s northwestern coast to offload drugs on the Gatun, which was anchored offshore.

The ship then turned north for Mexico.

Thinking the shipment was safely on its way, task force officials allege, Mondragon and Nunez left their mid-priced Panama City hotel that Saturday to catch a flight back to Mexico. They were arrested as they boarded a plane at Tocumen airport and charged with drug trafficking. They have denied any wrongdoing.


About the time they were arrested, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Sherman, with the Panamanian government’s permission, was stopping the Gatun off the Panamanian coast. The bust occurred the next day when Panama gave permission to search the vessel. The Sherman is one of half a dozen naval and Coast Guard vessels on call to intercept suspicious boats off the coasts of Mexico and Central and South America.

Like other Central American countries, Panama is seeing a surge in cocaine trafficking as well as criminal side effects such as gang violence and deadly turf wars. Government and business officials are concerned the country could lose its sobriquet of “the safest country in Central America.”

In fact, the Gatun bust brought the year-to-date total of cocaine seized in Panamanian waters or territory to 40 tons, which by some estimates is more than 5% of all the cocaine Colombia produces in a year. The seizures already surpass the 32 tons taken during all of 2006, Almengor said.

Officials fear the trend may be hard to reverse. Panama’s proximity to Colombia and its robust economy provide perfect cover for the traffickers.

“Panama has financial institutions, the banking, the canal and the free zone that are attractive to honest investors,” the foreign counter-narcotics official said. “But they appeal to delinquents too.”