Darién Gap under the Microscope
By Roberto López Dubois / Diálogo January 27, 2017A sentinel is keeping watch inside the immense Darién jungle. Flanked by two mountain ranges, the jungle is a swatch of land on the border between Colombia and Panama, a narrow, 266-linear-kilometer gorge that forms a wall between north and south of the American continent. These mountains are covered by a thick coat of vegetation, with massive, hundred-year-old trees. It is an inhospitable place, far from everything, which was used initially by the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as their principal rest area. Years later, it was also used for trafficking drugs to North American countries. Panama now controls its entire territory and prohibits the activities of groups operating illegally, Commissioner Cristian Hayer, director of Panama’s Border Service (SENAFRONT, per its Spanish acronym) told Diálogo. Early operations During the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, media accounts citing government sources told of almost 20 attacks on Panamanian towns by groups of illegal migrants – from kidnappings to homicides. An undetermined number of incursions into Panamanian territory also were recorded. At the time, the Panamanian government’s initial reaction was to create a specialized group within the National Police to handle security at the borders. The units arrived in the area and immediately were put in charge of safeguarding the population. SENAFRONT was created in 2008 as a component of Panama’s Public Force. The border service is under the Ministry of Security, and has its own director and budget. In the beginning Today Panama has a presence throughout the area, and both guerrilla activity and that of other groups operating illegally in the region are under control. The commissioner attributes the success to the way the institution is set up: there is one group in charge of security in the towns, one group of special forces, and a third group made up of mobile companies operating along jungle paths. “In eight years we have managed, with everyone’s work, to take the FARC out of Darién, where they had campsites established on Panamanian territory. We managed to clean Darién up,” Hayer stated. These operations helped Colombia neutralize leaders of the FARC’s 57th Front on the Colombian side and “made it possible to lower their members’ morale. In the end, the 57th [Front] was reduced to an insignificant version of itself,” the commissioner emphasized. On the other hand, Hayer said that SENAFRONT was able to set up two advanced bilateral posts with troops from Panama and Colombia to bring security to both sides of the border. Plans are in place to install two more posts. Progress within the towns The operations resulted in SENAFRONT achieving community acceptance for the Public Force and allowing the various state entities to safely travel to those towns. Today, local residents can go about their day peacefully and with confidence. SENAFRONT relies on the Eastern Brigade’s five battalions. Troop strength is estimated at 4,224 distributed along 26 percent of the territory of the Republic of Panama. Citizen security “Implementing the citizen security programs in rural areas was a challenge, but we did it with the efforts and work of the institution’s units, in which every man and woman, uniformed personnel, or civilian contributed their small part,” said Eduardo Araúz, deputy commissioner for SENAFRONT. Every action was based on different strategies, he said. “We started out with a strategy of total mobility, then a strategy of consolidation until we came to what we have today, a strategy of comprehensive security for human development,” Araúz said. Director Hayer explained that once the area is secured and development programs for different institutions implemented, achieving self-management is necessary for local citizens to integrate into development tasks for their own community. Deputy Commissioner Araúz agreed. He confirmed that the entire set of actions was achieved with citizen participation, in direct coordination with the traditional authorities of the indigenous people who live in the area. This created an atmosphere of security and trust, he explained. Confidence of the population “Little by little, we gained the population’s trust through direct communication, with information operations, humanitarian aid, and the support of information against the threats that could present themselves,” Araúz said. He also added that prevention activities are carried out in every area of operations. “We are not going to let up on organized or common crime, and we will provide security both for our citizens and foreign nationals.” The leaders of SENAFRONT promise that the new alliance with the community, the patrols, and their units’ high morale will allow them to face new threats that have emerged since FARC was demobilized. Jungle warfare is difficult because the terrain is inhospitable, and there are huge dangers that represent enormous challenges. But the area is extremely significant for security in the narrow gorge that connects North and South America.