In mid-February, the Colombian Navy and the Panamanian Air and Naval Service (SENAN, in Spanish) carried out a combined operation that led to the capture of a semisubmersible and its four Colombian crew members. The vessel, which navigated on the Caribbean Sea off the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro, carried 5 tons of cocaine.
The Colombian Navy estimated that the value of the seized drug exceeded $168 million on the international market. The drug, said the institution, likely belongs to structures affiliated with the Colombian organized armed group Clan del Golfo.
“It was very surprising for us, because for about 10 years we had not seen or detected a semisubmersible in the Caribbean,” Colombian Navy Vice Admiral Andrés Vásquez Villegas, commander of the Caribbean Naval Force, told Diálogo, adding that building the vessel may have cost up to $2 million.
The operation was the result of months of monitoring, during which time the Colombian Navy established that a considerable amount of cocaine was being prepared shipping to Panamanian coasts. Four Colombian Navy units, 17 SENAN units, and an aircraft of U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force South took part in the operation.
Colombia and Panama have been reinforcing combined operations to stop the activities of transnational criminal groups. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Panama is one of the main maritime narcotrafficking routes due to its location and geography.
Narcotrafficking organizations use Panamanian waters and the Panama Canal to transport drugs from South America to the United States or Europe, the report says.
In 2019, Panamanian security forces seized about 80 tons of drugs, 86 percent of which was cocaine, says the report. According to Panamanian Minister of Public Security Juan Manuel Pino Forero, of that total 33 tons were seized during Colombian-Panamanian combined operations.
“During recent years, the Colombian Navy and the Panamanian Air and Naval Service have managed to strengthen bonds of trust considerably,” says Vice Adm. Vasquez. “Nowadays, we have real-time connectivity with Panamanian authorities, which helped us conduct a series of operations with the United States that had a transnational impact, directly disrupting the finances of these narcotrafficking organizations.”
The achievements, Pino told Diálogo, are part of a trinational strategy among Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama, known as the South Triangle, which was created in 2017. The three countries share security initiatives on their borders and counter the threat of narcotrafficking with U.S. support.
“The trust we have in our neighboring countries has enabled cooperation in constant and useful information sharing, which helps us counter narcotrafficking rings,” Major Jhonathan Indomar Ali, head of SENAN’s National Intelligence Directorate, concluded.