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Friday, November 28 2014 @ 06:57 AM EST

Duty Free Shops in Tocumen International Airport Under US Scrutiny

Drug TraffickingThere currently is no government control over the movement of money and goods passengers carry through the Tocumen International Airport. The National Customs Authority and the National Immigration Service, two of the main responsible for this verification, have no control over purchases made by passengers in the Free Zone of the Tocumen airport. The deputy head of Customs in the airport zone, Eric Alba, told Panama America that they do not have any legal jurisdiction to screen passengers before boarding the plane, and that this corresponds to airport security. "Remember that officials can not go beyond what the law allows. The people who come into the country with money fill out the customs forms and this is to verify (or check) those passengers who enter the country with more than $10,000 dollars," he said. Alba, however, contradicted himself when he said that while Customs has "the power to inspect" passengers, "we have no presence in the exits of the country."

Money Laundering Denied - Meanwhile, the Security Chief for Migration in Tocumen, Juan Binns, said the department checks to make sure that those who are entering the country do not have any cases pending against them, which is done through a program called "invisible migration." He said that people who go to the free zone "as in all airports of the world make their purchases of what they want and then they board their flights, as normal." Binns described it as "illogical" - that someone could use the Duty Free Zone of the airport to launder money, as reported by the former U.S. ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson in a confidential cable released by Wikileaks this week. "If they are going to board the flight then they have to pass through the security at Tocumen, and if they enter the country then they will pass through Customs who checks them," he said.

In the cable, Stephenson criticized that "there is no real inspection by the authorities of passengers using the free zone, where smuggling is the most serious problem. Passengers who arrive at Tocumen without Customs and Immigration inspection can also roam freely in the sterile area of the free zone at the airport while waiting for flight connections. " The former diplomat directly named the Waken and Motta families as being those who "control" the Tocumen free zone and that there was "little regulation and supervision" in awarding a concession for 10 years for the price of $173 million dollars.

Reactions - Given these observations, businessman Abdul Waked merely answered that "the ambassador did not say my name, only that it was the Motta and Waked families." Meanwhile, Erasmus Orillac, a spokesman for Stanley Motta, said "we participated in an international bidding process and we won and important part of the operation. Our stores are strictly for retail sales in the passenger airport."

Orillac stressed that their stores take up just 700 square meters of space of teh more than 3,000 square meters available at the Tocumen airport. He rejected Stephenson's assertions about possible smuggling and money laundering in that area, saying that "our operations in Tocumen is continuously audited by both our internal auditors as well as external auditors, and sales are reported monthly to the contract we have with Tocumen." He also stressed that "we always operate under the laws of Panama and we are faithfully adherent of the same."

Alert - Stephenson warned that "smugglers regularly fly to Tocumen, they meet their contacts in the airport, and they send their packages using false papers to another destination." She added that "this happens, because for some it is possible to leave their countries of origin, transit through Panama and not face any inspections until they meet with U.S. authorities." She said that in these stores, "transit passengers enter the free zone without inspection, with any amount of cash. This money can be washed in the stores of the Tocumen free zone, which are not under severe regulations." She stressed that Customs officers are "bribed" to let briefcases full of money pass, among other things, because their records are done "totally by hand." Alba rejected the argument and said the system is computerized and is held between the staff and passengers. (Panama America)

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