Panama: the 'Guantanamo Bay of Panama' prison raises human rights concerns

Jonathan Lawrence for InSight Crime

The remote island prison dubbed the Guantanamo Bay of Panama houses the country’s most dangerous prisoners, but concerns are mounting over harsh conditions and human rights violations occurring behind the prison’s impregnable walls.

In March 2015, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela announced that the soon to be inaugurated Punta Coco prison would help break the grip of Panamanian crime bosses and reduce the violence they cause by severing their ties with the outside world.

** The new maximum security facility houses just six inmates at an anti-narcotics naval base on Isla del Rey, an island over a hundred kilometers off the coast from Panama City that has four towns and a population of around 1,600 full-time residents.**

The prison is not even considered part of Panama’s Ministry of Government-run penitentiary system, but is instead administered by the Ministry of Public Security. The prisoners are officially in the custody of the National Air and Naval Service (SENAN) and the National Border Service (SENAFRONT).

Punta Coco’s six inmates are primarily being held on charges of drug and weapons trafficking, terrorism against the state, and homicide. (See below) They were transferred to the island covertly with no advance warning for the prisoners or their families. Although government officials have at one point claimed the prisoners had requested the transfer for their own protection, the message put out by President Varela and his director of the penitentiary system has been another; the intention was to sever the ties between the six and their cohorts on the outside, who officials claim carry out crimes on their orders.

The prison’s isolated location also guards against escapes. There has been an alarming spike in jailbreaks recently, most notably in June when six inmates escaped from La Joyita prison, and half of the Punta Coca inmates have previously escaped custody.

The prisoners of Punta Coco

  • Carlos Mosquera: Mosquera was linked in March 2015 to a seizure of 320 kilograms of cocaine on a farm in the town of Sajalices in Panama. He also allegedly belongs to a network involved in the “tumbe” (theft) of drug shipments.
  • Clifford Alfonso Hylton Patterson: Patterson is being held for his alleged role in robberies of banks and other businesses as well as for escaping from the La Joyita penitentiary center in June 2015.
  • Jose Cossio: Cossio was captured in Costa Rica and extradited to Panama in 2015. He is head of the gang Calor Calor, one of Panama’s most powerful. Cossio allegedly robbed $2.4 million from the Bank of China in Panama’s Colon Free Zone in 2005. He is also being held for the murder of a Panamanian beauty contestant, drug trafficking, and for escaping from La Joya prison.
  • Jose Camargo: Camargo is the leader of the gang Bagdad, the arch rival of Calor Calor. In 2014, he allegedly gave the order to murder two children and their parents in the coastal city of La Chorrera, Panama despite having been held in the National Police’s headquarters in the town of Ancon since 2013.
  • Dangelo Dayan Ramirez Ramea: Ramirez allegedly took part in the 2005 robbery of the Bank of China with Cossio. He has also been arrested for drug trafficking, money laundering, personal injury, extortion, and other crimes. According to police records, he is also the ringleader of a local criminal organization.
  • Azael Ramos: Ramos is being held for drug and weapons trafficking, weapons possession, and murder, among other charges. He has escaped from police custody twice before; the first time was in 2008 when he escaped from La Joyita, and the second time was in 2010 when he escaped from Santo Tomas Hospital in Panama City while receiving treatment. He was a fugitive for two months following his first escape, but managed to elude authorities for two years after his second escape.
  • Enrique Edwin Jaen Cherigo1: Jaen Cherigo was reportedly the driver of the car involved in a fatal hit-and-run of a celebrated Panamanian cyclist. He later fled to the interior of Panama, where he was captured in the city of Santiago. Jaen Cherigo has also been linked to the gang El Pentagono.

Alleged Human Rights abuses

Punta Coco’s moniker of “Panama’s Guantanamo Bay” does not just stem from its navel base island location where prisoners are held outside of normal jurisdictions. There are also complaints of human rights abuses.

A recent visit to the prison by Panamanian Ombudsman Lilia Herrera produced a damning report and a recommendation to immediately transfer out the prisoners and close the prison.

According to Herrera, the prison violated international conventions and pacts on human rights, particularly the American Convention on Human Rights and the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, which prevent and sanction torture and all other types of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of prisoners.

The Ombudsman’s report detailed how the prisoners’ cells were dangerously hot due to the concrete construction’s absorption of the blistering tropical heat, with ventilation limited to a small window on the cell’s metal door for passing food to the prisoners. She added that the prisoners’ health is further put at risk by the proliferation of mosquitoes on the island and the prison’s inadequate medical care.

** Herrera was most critical of the government’s efforts to isolate the prisoners, reporting how they are locked in their cells for nearly 24 hours a day and are not permitted to communicate with one another. She said that the prisoners are allotted a mere 40 minutes outside of their cell but not on a daily basis, as they are only freed from their cells when they need to wash their clothes. Furthermore, the prison’s strict prohibition on social interaction among the prisoners means that they are kept apart at all times. She also added that the isolation and inaccessibility of Punta Coco deprives the six prisoners of their fundamental right of access to the judicial system.**

The United Nations has also raised concerns, with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture and the chair of its Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calling conditions “inhumane and degrading.” The UN representatives urged the Panamanian government to immediately cease the transfer of prisoners to Punta Coco over grave concerns about the inmates’ inability to prepare an adequate defense due to the distance and cost of traveling to the island.

They also expressed apprehension over the shackling of the prisoners’ hands and feet during visits, the prisoners’ frequent stomach ailments, the lack of electrical lighting, and the continuous use of solitary confinement, which they said should be used only as a last resort.

The families of the prisoners have also launched their own protests calling for the closure of the facility, which they called a “cruel system from the past,” and complained how the government had not warned them their family members were about to be confined to a distant island.

Despite pressure, government remains firm

On August 30, the Punta Coco inmates began a hunger strike, saying the prison violated their rights and had no basis in the law. Meanwhile, on the mainland, critics are already highlighting the lack of results of the trade off of human rights for security. But so far, the government has held firm.

In September, the director of the Penitentiary System of Panama (SPP), Gabriel Pinzon, defended the prison on TV news program Radar. There were no human rights being violated inside, he said, and it was necessary to keep the prisoners isolated so they could not order more crimes. However, he did offer a glimpse of hope for those calling for the prison’s closure, saying it was a “transitory” measure whose legality will soon be decided by the Supreme Court.

Until that time or until the government cedes to its critics, Punta Coco will remain a stark symbol of how Panama’s government is willing to compromise on human rights for security – even when the promised gains are far from certain.

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  1. Unlike the other prisoners on the island whose presence has been confirmed, it is unclear whether Jaen Cherigo is currently being detained at Punta Coco, as the director of the National Police has not given a specific date for his transfer to the island.