Enterprise man imprisoned in Panama after getting scammed, family says

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PANAMA CITY, Panama (WDHN) — An Enterprise man is stuck inside a Panamanian jail after getting tricked into carrying drugs inside his luggage, according to his family.

James “Jimmy” Bell was convinced to go to Panama on the pretense that he was to go London to fill out paperwork to get some money, said a family member in an email to WDHN.

He reportedly stayed there for nine days before he tried to travel north to Toronto. That’s when things got messy.

“The person that got him to come over there said you need new luggage and he went along with it,” the email states. “When he tried to leave Panama to go to Toronto Canada he had the new luggage and the drug dog alerted so they took him to the side and cut the lining of the suitcase and found cocaine.”

Bell and the man who brought him to Panama reportedly said they had no idea the drugs were in there. Bell was then arrested due to Panama’s strict laws on drug possession.

Upon being notified of the Wiregrass resident’s imprisonment, we reached to both the Panamanian embassy in Washington D.C. and the U.S. embassy in Panamá City for information.

The Panamanian embassy did not have information on Bell’s incarceration, but the U.S. embassy gave us a contact to confirm it.

Friday morning, we received an email from a Department of State official that said the U.S. was aware of Bell’s arrest on drug possession.

“We take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad, and are providing all appropriate consular services,” the official said. “We have visited Mr. Bell and have been in communication with his family. In a foreign country, U.S. citizens are subject to that country’s laws, even if they differ from those in the United States.”

The official also said the U.S. consular officers cannot interfere with foreign legal processes. Instead, they can only provide a list of local lawyers for the accused to use.

According to gov.uk, drug laws in Panama are so strict that even having a small amount could land you in prison for 15 years. Even waiting for a trial could be strenuous with harsh prison conditions.

“Simply being in the company of someone who is using drugs is sufficient grounds for arrest,” the website states. “From the time of arrest, it can take two years before you even appear before a judge.”

However, this is not the first time a scam of this nature has happened. In 2016, the AARP reported that 145 people were arrested by foreign governments after getting caught in drug scams.

The scam usually follows this formula: First, the scammer gets in connection with a U.S. citizen through the internet. Then, they are flown into a foreign country and are asked to pick up a type of luggage or package on their way.

Drugs like cocaine or heroin are hidden inside the lining of the cargo, which keeps the traveler unaware of its presence.

Usually, the trips have multiple stops to keep local law enforcement from suspecting anything, but sometimes, the scheme fails. Because some countries still punish people for possession even if they didn’t know about the drugs, they often face imprisonment in harsh conditions, as in Bell’s case.

The AARP said that the scam targets older citizens. Scott Brown, the acting assistant director of investigative programs for Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the time of the report, said that on average, victims are 59 years old.

When the report was published, the oldest victim was 87.

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