Panama Combats Narcotrafficking Head-on

Panama Combats Narcotrafficking Head-on

By Geraldine Cook/Diálogo
July 12, 2021

Juan Manuel Pino Forero, Panamanian minister of Public Security, coordinates a national and regional effort to combat transnational criminal organizations. Interagency work with security agencies, binational border agreements, and cooperation with the Southern Triangle are part of his commitment to counter illicit networks.

Minister Pino spoke with Diálogo during the Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC) 2021, which took place in Panama City on June 22-23.

Diálogo: How important was it for Panama to co-host CENTSEC 2021?

Juan Manuel Pino Forero, Panamanian minister of Public Security: In 2020, Panama suffered the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of hurricanes Eta and Iota. We managed to move forward during these emergencies thanks to internal coordination and the collaboration of Colombia, Costa Rica, and the United States. This shows that countries have to come together to face common threats and enemies. That is why CENTSEC is important, because it allows us to come together in order to share very specific and effective ideas and coordinate actions, since the effects of environmental impact, the fight against transnational organized crime, and irregular migration are scenarios that affect security and that we must pay attention to.

Diálogo: What does the Regional Center for Aeronaval Operations (CROAN, in Spanish) consist of?

Minister Pino: During the pandemic, we had an internal initiative to consolidate CROAN with U.S. support. CROAN combines the maritime efforts of the National Police, the National Border Service, and the National Air and Naval Service to combat illicit narcotrafficking at sea, through nighttime and daytime interdictions. We didn’t make any great investment, but merely merged a doctrine to combat a common enemy.

CROAN is an operations center that dictates instructions for maritime interdiction, and it is connected to U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force South, where Panama has a liaison officer. This initiative, which began last year [2020], is very successful. By June of this year, Panama had seized 62 tons of drugs. Based on the figures, this is going to be Panama’s record year for seizures, due to the effectiveness of this joint effort.

Diálogo: What progress has been made in the strategy among Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama, known as the Southern Triangle? How does the United States support this strategy?

Minister Pino: It’s a strategy based on mutual trust. Panama has bilateral agreements with the Colombian Army, Police, and Navy. Similarly, it has bilateral agreements with Costa Rica’s National Coast Guard Service, Air Surveillance Service, and Public Force. The Southern Triangle is very effective with U.S. support, because the largest effort or the first disrupting block that has to be made to stop drug [trafficking] must be as far south as possible, since once the drug is transported farther north, it gets scattered and becomes more expensive. If we continue closing that maritime crossing jointly, as we do with Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and the United States, we will continue to be much more effective.

Diálogo: Panama and Colombia have increased surveillance operations in border areas, in the Darién Gap. What are the results of these operations?

Minister Pino: The Darién Gap is an inhospitable area, so we have three binational bases with the Colombian Police and Army, which are built on the border, where half belong to Colombia and the rest to Panama. These bases serve as an example for the region for the excellent teamwork and information and intelligence exchange. This cooperation over the years has been effective, because this effort has made the presence of irregular forces within Panamanian territory almost non-existent.

Diálogo: What is Panama’s main security challenge?

Minister Pino: The fight against drugs. Panama was the first point for the arrival or transit of drugs in 2014 and 2015, but this situation has changed. These great efforts that my country makes in capability investment have forced transnational criminal organizations to look for other routes. When a drug package reaches the mainland, it automatically becomes a public and social order problem. Drugs contaminate our societies and especially young people. Today, we have several initiatives to face this challenge, such as the Domain Extinction draft bill, which we submitted in April to the Legislative Assembly — similar to the Colombian one — to retain property that was acquired illegally, in order to help us fight transnational criminal organizations.