Tiny Panama RoarsBy: COHA Research Fellow Alex Sanchez
Amidst Growing Violence and Disturbing Discord, the Internal Debate over Creating a New Security Posture Heats Up
• Is the Colombian conflict spilling into Panama? FARC threatens to abduct high visibility figures, such as Panamanian politicians and police
• The Noriega Legacy
• Bernal as Ombudsman
• Not even James Bond is safe in today’s Panama
In late February, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s largest insurgent movement, proclaimed that, unless six of their fighters would be released into their custody (after having been apprehended by Panamanian authorities), the rebels would strike back by kidnapping Panamanian politicians and police. Furthermore, later in the same month, a film crew shooting a new Bond film on location in Panama fled the set due to ongoing gang warfare in the area. In today’s mayhem-driven Panama, no one is really safe, not even James Bond.
The present domestic instability in the country apparently is too much for the administration of President Martin Torrijos to curb, and as of now is being temporarily overshadowed by the spillover of the Colombian civil conflict into Panama. Both the Colombian drug cartels and the leftist FARC rebels are using Panama as a corridor for transporting drugs and other illicit substances to finance Colombia’s protracted conflict. In view of these facts, a focused discussion needs to be encouraged regarding the debate over the restructuring of Panama’s ineffective security forces. Moreover, the legacy of Manuel Noriega continues to haunt any discussion in this Central American country. Nevertheless, internal instability and ongoing turmoil in adjacent Colombia are factors which now make it necessary for the Torrijos administration to divert more funds and concentration to national defense, in one form or another. Otherwise Panama could soon have a domino-effect that could further contribute to an ever-widening Colombian conflict.
The Military: No More
The Panamanian Defense Force met its demise in 1989, when the U.S. military invaded Panama, in an intervention dubbed “Operation: Just Cause,” and within hours managed to overthrow General Manuel Noriega. After the PDF was disbanded and Noriega was tried and jailed in the U.S., a substantial portion of the remaining PDF forces were incorporated into the country’s newly reconstructed police force.
The last of the U.S. troops detailed to the Panama Canal zone left the country in 1999 as part of the handover of control of the Panama Canal to local authorities. Along with Costa Rica, Panama today is one of the two hemispheric countries that does not have a standing army, yet relies upon a national police force for its domestic security.
With an area of 78,200 square kilometers and a population of slightly over three million, Panama features a 225-kilometer long boundary with Colombia. In order to effectively guard this territory, the government, after it disbanded the PDF, created the Fuerzas Públicas (Public Forces), comprised of the National Police, the National Air Service and the National Maritime Service. Today the Panamanian police force is around 11,000 strong, and as a result, struggles to maintain order within the country as well as halt the geopolitical pressure coming from Colombia.
In recent years, as in other Central American isthmus countries, there has been a disturbing increase in the volume of gang warfare in Panama. Growing disillusion with Torrijos rule has promoted anti-government protests by different sectors of the population. In mid-February, construction workers clashed with police units, which resulted in the death of a laborer. According to a February 13 report by Deutsche Presse-Agentur, “the protest had originally been prompted by the construction union Suntracs, which accused the government of launching a ‘dirty campaign’ against trade-union leaders.” The government denies these allegations. Regarding the death of the worker, government officials maintained that the riot police, “used the level of force required to clear roads and restore order,” including the use of tear gas and pellets.
Meanwhile, gang warfare continues to proliferate throughout the country. In February, the production unit in Panama filming the new Bond thriller began to be affected by the gang clashes. This pressured its producers to hire armed bodyguards for some of the movie’s stars, including Daniel Craig, Gemma Arterton and Olga Kurylenko. According to a set source, “the [Panamanian] police warned the city’s gangs to stay away from the area while the crew were making the movie. They’ve been given permission to shoot on sight anyone thought to be trying to harm the crew.”
There have been a series of reports circulating about “network” gangs like the Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha in nearby countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. But Panama also suffers from home-grown groups of thugs. In March 2007, a gang battle killed three children and destroyed numerous hovels in the slums surrounding Panama City.
The question is: do the Panamanian police today have the resources, including the necessary training, to deal with both a normal level of criminal activity and gang warfare and public protests, in addition to the wave of drug cartel warfare coming up from the southern border? Professor Orlando Perez, of Central Michigan University, explained to the author that “levels of violence in Panama have not reached the same levels as in other Central American countries” and that “there certainly is a worrying increase in petty crime, the rich-poor gap and property robberies, but it is not as bad as in other countries in the region.”
The Colombian Conflict spills over – Drug Trafficking and Violence
It may appear somewhat obscure what the precise correlation is between Panama’s gangs and the conflict in Colombia. The latter’s drug cartels have entered into de facto alliances with Panamanian criminal groups and are now engaged in drug trafficking operations across the country. If anything, Panama’s border with Colombia needs enhanced protection, which requires more than routine policing, and the border guards who normally are considered necessary. For example, in late February of this year, Panamanian maritime police exchanged fire with a boat carrying FARC fighters. Although the police unit was outgunned, they managed to overcome the rebels and capture six of them, along with four AK-47 assault rifles, seven kilograms of explosives, and communication gear. It is believed that the rebels belonged to the Farc’s 57th Front. According to an article in the Panamanian daily La Prensa, there are different versions regarding the intent of the FARC mission. One report claims that “the guerrillas came to Panama to kill a group of Panamanians and Colombians who, according to the FARC members themselves, had betrayed the organization. Another report indicates that they wanted to kidnap a high-ranking executive of a hotel located in the town of Pina, but that they were stranded for lack of gasoline.” Panamanian authorities claim that the border is “under control,” however few outsiders actually believe this.
Someone who should have a say in the future of Panama’s security arrangement, especially if any decision occurs under the Torrijos presidency—is Miguel Antonio Bernal (who would be a compelling candidate to be the country’s “ombudsman”). Bernal is a professor in the law school in University of Panama, and was harassed by the Panama Defense Forces in 1977 for demonstrating against the Panama Canal Treaty (also known as the Carter-Torrijos Treaty). Later, he was badgered for objecting to the fraudulent sale of university credentials by senior officials of the University of Panama. Currently, Bernal is running a campaign to be the mayor of Panama City. An interview was carried out with Bernal in elguayacan.com.pa and which was published in Bernal’s campaign website
(Click Here) quotes him as being worried about the possibility of a police state emerging in Panama. It will be interesting to see, as Bernal’s electoral position is being refined, and what policies he advocates in order to increase daily domestic security in Panama City, as well as how his combative relationship both towards the government and towards Panama’s police forces manifests itself. The asset that he brings into what is ordinarily a heavily contested area is Bernal’s unassailable reputation of being one of the few ethical and honorable figures in Panama’s public life today.
Ongoing Security Problems
In another February incident, as reported by Deutsche Presse-Agentur, a Colombian police patrol was attacked by FARC rebels—which wounded three FARC members. The firefight took place near the Panamanian border region of Uraba, a banana-growing region in the northwestern Colombian state of Antioquia. According to a Global Insight account, the Torrijos government has deployed as many as 200 elite police forces to the area between the frontier provinces of Bahia Pina and Jaque, close to the Colombian border. However, it is hard to believe that even 200 officers over such a relatively large landscape could make much of a difference. The Panamanian-Colombian border in this area features the Darien Gap, which is known for its thick vegetation, sparse population, and essentially lawless society, featuring only a minimal, governmental presence.
First of all, warfare in the region over the past four decades has displaced thousands of people, forcing many of the local indigenous population to become refugees in surrounding countries. In recent months, much attention has been directed toward Colombian refugees fleeing into Ecuador; however, many have moved to Panama as well. An example of this was seen in 2006, when the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) reported that nearly 50 Wounaan (a Colombian indigenous community) had fled into Panama to escape local violence. Seven of the fleeing Wounaan were leaders who had been targeted by unknown gunmen. This event followed the release of up to 500 previously detained Colombian refugees who had fled the country’s civil war in August of that year, seeking refuge in Unguia, Panama. Another example of the dangers to be encountered along the Panama-Colombia border was exhibited in 2006 when dozens of loggers were kidnapped by FARC rebels in Colombia’s Choco region which borders Panama. At the time, an Associated Press report explained that as many as 13 loggers had been decapitated by the FARC, who they suspected of working with the country’s paramilitaries.
Drug trafficking, unsurprisingly, continues to be an immense local problem. In March 2007, a joint operation involving Panama, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Coast Guard resulted in the seizure of a suspect vessel off the Panamanian coastline. It turned out to be carrying 20 tons of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $300 million. In July 2007, FARC leader Anayibe Rojas Valderrama (aka “Sonia”) was sentenced on drug charges by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. According to an article by PR Newswire, drug dealer Jose Antonio Celis “arranged for the purchase of large quantities of cocaine from Rojas Valderrama and the [FARC’s] 14th Front, and coordinated the transshipment of the cocaine from Colombia to Panama, and from Panama into the United States.”
Panama is also ritualistically used as a stopover for smugglers working with the FARC. For example, in 2006, Hector Orlando Martinez Quinto, a FARC member and drug smuggler, was detained in Costa Rica by local authorities. According to Interpol, Martinez arrived in Costa Rica in 1997 by land from Panama, and obtained legal residency when he married a Costa Rican woman.
Panama’s Security Forces – A Conventional Military, or Is a More Professionalized Police Force, Needed? And what about Manuel Noriega?
Should the re-organization of a Panamanian military force be seriously discussed by Panamanian authorities? And how much a factor is the ghost of Manuel Noriega, who still is serving a jail sentence in a prison in Florida (for a crime as political as it was based on drug-trafficking factors). He remains under threat of his possible deportation to France, whose relative mistreatment still haunts the upper echelons of the Panamanian government. Understandably, concerns exist that, should the military be re-organized, some kind of nostalgic allegiance to Noriega may emerge if he returns to the country and becomes a daily presence. Any discussion focused on a new Panamanian military would have to go into how such a force would be submitted to civilian control, and avoid falling under the influence of a new Noriega, or even a return of the old one himself. Some analysts argue that if Panama rebuilds its military, especially if supported by the U.S., a new Noriega could likely emerge. For Professor Orlando Perez, it would be particularly difficult for President Torrijos and his Popular Democratic Party (PRD – Panama) administration to support the remilitarization of the country, particularly because of a number of former Noriega’s associates who already serve in his administration.
The recent FARC threat to kidnap Panamanian politicians and/or police officers if their leftist comrades are not expeditiously returned should not be taken lightly. As Adam Isacson, a Colombia specialist at the Center for International Policy explains, “the FARC have the capacity to carry out kidnappings in the isolated areas in the border with Panama, like the Darien Gap; it is highly unlikely that they could accomplish this in populated areas like Panama City.” This analysis is countered by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, which insists that if the FARC makes a decision to scoop up a given kidnapping target, there is no denying them success.
It can be argued that the FARC’s threat towards Panama is a sample of how little respect or fear that the Colombian rebels rightfully have for the tactical abilities of the Panamanian police. In theory, if the Central American country had a military with a counter-insurgency and anti-narcotics capacity, the FARC would not be making these types of demands and threats. Then again, recent explosive developments between Ecuador and Colombia over in the death of FARC insurgents on Ecuadorian territory, demonstrate that even the Ecuadorian military, which is now largely deployed along the country’s border with Colombia, could not readily interfere with the free movement of the FARC. A former SOUTHCOM official interviewed by the author and who requested anonymity explains that the Panamanians would need around four-five battalions (translated into four-five thousand troops) placed along the Darien Gap to effectively monitor it. The official explains that the issue here is vegetation. “Due to the vegetation, the only valid way to move troops effectively is by having available a vast number of helicopters ready to deploy troops where and when needed. But helicopters are costly to maintain, especially in tropical conditions and I do not see the Panamanian government having those kind of resources,” the official said.
Professor Perez explains that some Panamanians argue that the best way for Panama to safeguard its sovereignty is to at least aspire to remain neutral vis-à-vis Colombia; this would recognize that the risk of re-militarizing the border over a protracted period of time would outweigh the cost and anxiety of tolerating sporadic FARC incursions. Perez explains that “the dirty little secret is that the FARC has operated in the Panamanian-Colombian border area for years with relative impunity, particularly in the Colon free trade zone.” Colombian insurgents, as well as paramilitaries and non-rebel connected drug traffickers are attracted to Panama so it can carry out arms trade purchases and benefit from the country’s booming economy and its relaxed banking rules. Additionally, the FARC probably has had an understandable concern that launching some kind of major offensive involving Panama would most likely push Torrijos to call on SOUTHCOM for aid, which the FARC leadership presumably would be anxious to avoid.
According to Isacson, Panama does not need a military capacity as much as it needs a more effective police force, with more anti-narcotics units and the necessary training, equipment, and intelligence services to detect FARC infiltrations, as well as the flow of illicit drugs. The former SOUTHCOM official notes that the apparent modus vivendi of recent Panamanian administrations when it comes to the FARC, Colombian criminals and other paramilitaries, is to “live and let live,” as long as they remain in the Darien. The official said that “the Darien is far from Panama’s populated areas, it has only a relatively few inhabitants who are mostly indigenous and who historically have constantly been marginalized, I’m not saying it’s fair but it’s true. Therefore, there is no real incentive for the Panamanian officials to go to the Darien in the first place.”
Furthermore, the question of whether Panama needs a military goes back to the question of if armed forces are needed. Central American militaries have a disastrous reputation for human rights violations, particularly during the wars that broke out in the late 1960s-1980s. In addition, besides the non-traditional security threat coming from the FARC, Panama is on good terms with the governments of its two neighbors: Costa Rica (which also does not have a standing military) and Colombia (contemplating an attack by its military on its Panamanian cousins would be ludicrous).
Finally, logistics and budgetary issues can also be expected to play an important role over any decision to reconstruct the Panamanian military. The country is by no means wealthy and any budgetary surplus would be probably diverted in the near term to the enlargement of the Panama Canal. A connected question would be, where would the country get the necessary resources from which to organize a new military? A starting point might be to recall Noriega-era officers for command leadership positions. The other logical option would be to organize a draft or push for strong economic incentives to young Panamanians to join the military. As for equipment, training and resources, the obvious source for this would be SOUTHCOM. For a long time, the U.S. Southern Command has promoted the idea of the revival of a new Panamanian military as a way to stop the infiltration of the Colombian conflict into its northern neighbor. Another factor that would motivate SOUTHCOM to exercise this option is that Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa is on record as being strongly against renewing the lease on the U.S. base in Manta. The lease on the base is set to expire in 2009 and, since it is unlikely that a breakthrough may occur regarding the status quo, Panama could be the obvious choice for an alternate American Forward Operation Location (FOL) in the area. SOUTHCOM officials would probably happily push for funding for such a new military facility near a major theatre of drug and guerrilla activity, should its senior command believe it would be an effective blocking force against the FARC, ELN and AUC, as well as a host of drug-trafficking organizations now operating in Colombia.
Predictions for the Future
The powerful legacy of Manuel Noriega may be why discussing the country’s security forces—specifically a renewed military cadre—has become an almost taboo subject in the Central American country. Dr. Perez, as well as CIP’s Isacson, argue that Panama does not need to re-militarize, but rather simply make the established police force work, meaning tackle corruption, improve training and upgrade equipment. SOUTHCOM, for its part, would argue that the Darien Gap is already more than lawless and has attracted too much of an insurgency and a criminal presence at this date. Meanwhile, it remains a matter of speculation to see if the FARC will carry out their threat of kidnapping Panamanian police and politicians as a tactic to gain the release of their comrades. Ironically, as the aforementioned former SOUTHCOM official explains, the Darien Gap both prevents the Panamanian police from effectively controlling the border with Colombia, while at the same time helps protect Panama from the FARC and other threats to its security. According to the official, the Darien Gap has such thick vegetation that makes it virtually impassable, hence, as he says, “the best barrier for [the problems south of the Darien gap] is the Darien itself.”