Colombia and Panama Ramp Up Joint Operations Along Their Shared Border
By Roberto López Dubois/Diálogo October 03, 2017Colombia and Panama will install two additional joint security posts at the border crossings in La Balsa and La Olla, as a result of an agreement reached between the security authorities of the two countries at the most recent Binational Border Commission (COMBIFRON, per its Spanish acronym), meeting from August 29th to September 1st in Medellin, Colombia. With a total of four posts in the border area, the parties are working to make these posts operational by January 2018. “These facilities will allow Colombian soldiers to patrol the area from their side, and the Panamanians from theirs,” stated Panamanian Minister of Public Security Alexis Bethancourt. “Furthermore, it enables joint monitoring of the jungle trails used by organized crime, allows for control of migratory flows, and puts a halt to narcotrafficking activity by both countries.” The armed forces of the two countries are working together to combat narcotrafficking, human trafficking, illegal migration, illegal mining, and other crimes near the countries' shared border. The border posts at Alto Limón and La Unión are currently in operation. “The advanced security posts will play an important strategic role for control of the border region,” added Commissioner Guillermo Valdés, the operations chief of the National Border Patrol (SENAFRONT, per its Spanish acronym). “All transit corridors in which threats pass from one side to the other have been blocked to this end.” In addition to the new security installations, it was agreed during the meeting to change their frequency from every six to every four months, and it was agreed that the next meeting will take place in Colombia, at the end of November. How COMBIFRON operates COMBIFRON is a coordination mechanism created by the governments of Colombia and Panama to tackle security problems along their shared border. At each meeting, the delegations first outline the new threats affecting their territory as well as their strategies for combating them. Then joint actions to be taken are discussed. “We have set up lines of communication at these meetings regarding aspects from the strategic to the operational,” explained Commissioner Oriel Ortega Benítez, the deputy director of SENAFRONT. “We are consolidating three very important focal points: information exchange, training, and strategic forecasts. Beyond planning, we have carried out simultaneous operations in the two countries, for example, Operation Escudo, and Operation Patria.. What we do will now be done in an integrated way,” he added. The threats The main threat in the area is narcotrafficking, whose methods constantly change in reaction to efforts to combat it. “Their methods have changed. At first we discovered that they were moving in large vessels, the longboats. Then they began transporting drugs in smaller, double-hulled boats,” explained Commissioner Valdés. “But currently, now that the aquatic route has been blocked, they are distributing the drugs by land, using people on foot, who we call backpackers.” Additionally, Colombia brought up illegal mining, and how it employs equipment made by taking materials from nature for use in extracting gold from rivers. The amount of human trafficking was also mentioned, which could rise in the near future, due to the increase in visitors to the area. Advantages of COMBIFRON COMBIFRON makes the creation of a synchronized coordination mechanism between the two countries possible, allowing them to counteract the various threats along the shared Colombia-Panama border. In order to achieve permanent and continuous sharing of information between the institutions, the parties have leveraged the latest technology, enabling activities ranging from simple internet messages to videoconferencing. “The exchange of information allowed by COMBIFRON is a valuable resource when dealing with narcotrafficking and organized crime,” added Minister Bethancourt. “We need the parties to share information regarding who they are [the people committing the criminal acts], what they are doing, and where they are going, and with that information, we can assist in closing their route.” The first meeting goes back to June 2003. On that occasion, Colombia and Panama agreed to create a land, air, and naval border coordination manual, as well as a data bank containing the criminal history of the residents of the towns, provinces, and departments in the border area. The attendees decided to continue holding periodic meetings, which allowed the countries' forces to reach new agreements more frequently, and to expand activities aimed at guaranteeing border security. Initially, Panama and Colombia decided to hold these types of meetings in response to the actions of narcoterrorist groups along their shared border. The illegal groups were committing criminal acts in Colombia and then crossing the border to hide in the dense and solitary Panamanian jungle. “These types of coordination meetings will continue in order to deal with matters of security, cooperation, and other issues affecting us both,” said Minister Bethancourt. “We have had very positive results with respect to various courses of action, such as planning of joint patrols, structuring of joint plans, integrated work projects, as well as other operations in each country,” he concluded.