Central America, Mexico Strengthen Cooperation to Battle Drug Trafficking

By Geraldine Cook
January 08, 2016

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Security authorities from eight countries have strengthened communication and increased joint efforts as part of a new strategy to confront narco-trafficking’s regional threat.

Building upon a series of joint measures initiated in 2015, including signing cooperation agreements and holding joint training exercises and operations, security authorities in Central America and Mexico are using effective integration and communication as the cornerstones of a new strategy to confront the threat of drug trafficking.

“It is fundamental to understand that the fight against drug trafficking is an international phenomenon that does not respect borders,” Panamanian Minister of Public Security Rodolfo Aguilera said. “Criminal organizations function as a single unit, so the security agencies of the different countries affected must also function as a single, fully integrated unit and not as isolated agencies.”

To maximize its efforts in the fight against transnational criminal organizations, Panama has participated in several multinational operations in recent months. In early November, authorities announced they had cooperated with Colombian and Mexican security forces to dismantle a criminal alliance in Panama between the Sinaloa Cartel, which is led by kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (FARC) 30th Front.

Panamanian security forces capped the 18-month, joint investigation by arresting 50 suspects accused of engaging in drug trafficking or money laundering for the Sinaloa Cartel – the world’s largest transnational criminal organization – or the FARC, according to Commissioner Omar Pinzón, the chief of the Panamanian National Police. Two tons of cocaine, $500,000 in cash, five go-fast boats, and 40 cars were also seized.

Based on this successful operation, the governments of Panama and Mexico signed a memorandum of understanding on November 25th to strengthen cooperation and deepen the exchange of information in the fight against transnational crime, Minister Aguilera said. One of the memorandum’s objectives for the first quarter of 2016 is to develop technical training seminars for officials from both countries.

Partner nations join forces to ensure security

Security forces throughout Latin America strengthened cooperative efforts in 2015 to battle transnational criminal organizations. For example, police work performed last year by the Commission of Police Chiefs and Directors for Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Colombia – whose members meet twice a year as part of the Security and Integration Strategy of the Central American Integration System (SICA, for its Spanish acronym) – resulted in the dismantling of 33 gangs; the arrests and court appearances of 803 suspects linked to drug trafficking; the seizure of 22 tons of cocaine; the forfeiture of $11.5 million; and the confiscation of 539 vehicles and 110 firearms.

“We are ready to join forces and our will is to ensure the security of our region, which has the peculiar distinction of having the largest cocaine producers to the south and the main consumers to the north,” said the director of the Nicaraguan Police, First Commissioner Aminta Granera, who temporarily presides over the Police Chiefs Commission.

In the most recent session, held in Managua on December 3rd, First Commissioner Granera stressed that “there is no quick and easy fix for this problem.” However, security forces are aware that the most effective strategy for successfully combating the constant threat of drug trafficking starts with this type of regional initiative to generate a coordinated, articulated response to combat a scourge that transcends borders.

“This commission meeting is [being held] to open a new frontier to serve and protect our communities and towns. It is to open a window of hope for peace and tranquility for our families.”

Increasingly united across borders

To foster improved communication ties among Central American countries, Panama hosted the multinational drug enforcement operation Fronteras Unidas (United Across Borders), a regional exercise that included El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Mexico that was coordinated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

In its previous editions in 2013 and 2014, the two-week operation consisted of participating nations’ law enforcement agencies sending independent reports to the DEA, listing the various strategies they deployed and the drugs they seized.

In Fronteras Unidas III, which was held from September 14-24th, the independent reports were replaced by exchanges of information in real time on arrests and seizures, so each country’s representatives could manage common data on the logistics adopted by narcotraffickers. After operations in ports, airports, and border checkpoints in partner nations, the 806 security agents who participated in Fronteras Unidas III seized two tons of drugs, arrested 186 suspects, confiscated 212 illegal firearms of different calibers, and seized more than 2 million dollars. Authorities plan on repeating the effort in March 2016, with Panama as the host once again.

“The most notable aspect of an exercise like Fronteras Unidas, and in general any joint security operation, is that it gives the region’s national authorities an opportunity to know each other better, understand each other better, see what our strengths and weaknesses are, and where we can improve,” Panamanian Vice Minister for Public Security Rogelio Donadío said. “We reach agreements and then we start to create consensus policies that will help us combat organized crime in a much more uniform and effective manner.”

UNODC initiative

Another development in the multilateral effort in the fight against organized crime by Central American countries was the establishment of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Container Control Program. The initiative will be implemented beginning in January 2016 at Honduras’ largest port, Puerto Cortés, according to Bob Van den Berghe, the program’s regional coordinator in Latin America.

“The intent is to establish an interagency unit between the police and customs in Puerto Cortés to support authorities in dividing the containers, and not only focus on drugs and weapons, but all types of contraband, like counterfeit merchandise and medications,” Van den Berghe said during the framework of the 25th Meeting of Heads of National Drug Law Enforcement Agencies, Latin America, and the Caribbean (HONLAC), which was held in October in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

“With greater political will and integration, we will achieve better and better results,” added Amado Philip de Andrés, a UNODC regional representative, added during the HONLAC meeting’s opening ceremony.
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