As police pounded open his front gate with a sledgehammer, a suspected drug dealer slipped through the back yard and left Panama's vice squad in the dark.

"We didn't have flashlights," muttered a detective, explaining why the recent raid was botched.Despite last December's ouster of military strongman Manuel Noriega, who goes on trial next year in Miami on drug trafficking and money laundering charges, cocaine smugglers here show no sign of leaving town.

Lacking equipment and training, police and customs agents say they can do little to stop drug traffickers, and although authorities have captured tons of cocaine this year, they say much more is probably getting through.

"One would presume it's a lot, based on the seizures," said one U.S. official. "Sometimes, the more you seize, the more you think is out there."

Bordering Colombia - the home of the Medellin and Cali drug cartels - Panama has served as a depot for smugglers shipping cocaine to the United States since the early 1980s.

Boats move drugs along the hundreds of miles of deserted coast. Trucks haul cocaine north on the Pan-American highway, which stretches from Panama to Texas. Drug planes use Panama's clandestine airstrips.

During Noriega's rule, many Panamanian officials took bribes from traffickers to look the other way while others were deeply involved in the drug trade. Panama's world banking center served as a laundromat for drug profits.

When U.S. troops invaded last December and overthrew Noriega, some thought it also meant victory over the traffickers.

The new government of President Guillermo Endara signed agreements to cooperate with U.S. anti-drug efforts, and narcotics agents appear to have a renewed sense of purpose.

Customs and police have captured nearly 4 tons of cocaine in the past nine months, topping 1989 seizures by a ton. In the biggest drug bust in Panamanian history, officials in August captured a $53 million cocaine shipment.