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Okke Ornstein in the Darien gap

Journalistic pursuits

Drugs Canal

Rivaling gangs and drug trafficking cause increasing murder rates in Panama. Okke Ornstein explored gang land, and went to the Darien gap at the border with Colombia, spoke with drug traffickers, the border police, and the indigenous population in the area.

Police boat in the Darien

The police raids a neighborhood near the Panama City airport. Armed to the teeth and dressed in bullet proof vests, they storm from one dilapidated apartment building to the other. Their goal: Finding members of street gangs and drugs. Rivalry between the various gangs and foreign traffickers is the main reason for an ever increasing murder rate in Panama.

Where do these drugs come from? Most of it comes from Colombia, through the impenetrable border area known as the Darien gap. Panamanian traffickers meet in the jungle with Colombian FARC guerrillas or bandoleros and bring the merchandise to the capital, from where it is then shipped further north.

The Panamanian border police, SENAFRONT, is trying to stem the flow of drugs coming through the Darien, without much success. Caught in the middle is the indigenous population, the Embera, and small farmers. SENAFRONT seals off entire villages from the outside world, even preventing the residents from working on their crops. But at the same time, the armed groups demand that the villagers supply them with food.

I made a radio documentary for a Dutch broadcaster about the trafficking, interviewed drug runners, got in trouble with SENAFRONT and talked with the real victims; the local residents. Listen to the documentary on the NTR website.

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