The Making of an Illicit Entrepôt: Panama, the United States, and Borderland Vice on the Isthmus of Panama

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:50 AM
Columbia Hall 3 (Washington Hilton)
Matthew Scalena, Simon Fraser University
This paper sketches the muddied, intersecting worlds of legal and illegal state practices in the Republic of Panama in the years following the opening of the Panama Canal. I focus specifically on the thriving entertainment scenes in Panama’s terminal cities – that is, the multitude of traders engaged in gambling, booze, narcotics, and prostitution to meet the demands of canal workers, U.S. soldiers, sailors, and other visitors to the U.S.-occupied territory. This border-crossing leisure dynamic, in which Panama City and Colon became centers of “vice” to visit for those on the highly regulated Canal Zone, spurred North American officials to intervene in Panama in an attempt to reshape the client state’s criminal justice norms, law enforcement priorities, and policing practices. Panamanian power holders worked with these powerful intrusions but often not in ways U.S. officials hoped. Indeed, this paper argues that Panama’s limited economic benefit from the Canal and its traffic combined with these foreign legal impositions drove state engagement with newly criminalized activities underground. Controlling the burgeoning illicit infrastructure of state became a crucial component of institutionalized politics and power in Panama, setting the important political, economic, and cultural foundation for Panama’s infamous rise as a late-twentieth-century illicit global entrepôt.