The Panamanian government has deployed 1,200 members of its security forces in the Darién jungle, on the border with Colombia, to combat transnational criminal groups that plague this inhospitable area in the middle of the South American drug and arms trafficking route. Crimes in recent weeks in the region clearly show an increase in the presence of criminal groups, the Panamanian Security Ministry indicated.
The initiative, called Operation Chocó, is part of the Shield Campaign (Campaña Escudo) and will be carried out in five sectors with security, reconnaissance, and intelligence actions to take control of the routes along which criminal organizations move, reported Panamanian news agency Telemetro.
“Police forces from the National Air and Naval Service [SENAN] and the National Border Service [SENAFRONT] joined this campaign,” Panama América reported. “These gangs are run by young people who have a ringleader who may be from the Clan del Golfo.”
SENAFRONT uses a biometric system to identify people and corroborate whether or not they belong to terrorist groups. This tool facilitates the cross-checking of information with international security agencies such as INTERPOL and the FBI. Thanks to this system, nine criminals wanted in their countries of origin for different crimes, including drug and human trafficking, were arrested, Panamanian news site MiDiario reported on June 19.
“The biometric recognition system is an excellent tool that gives very good results,” Jaime Abad, a criminal lawyer and former director of Panama’s now-defunct Judicial Technical Police, told Diálogo on July 18. “Hopefully we will integrate it not only at border points or the Tocumen Airport, but at all the small airports that make local flights and in places where flows of foreigners converge.”
Intelligence reports gathered by the security forces indicate that the area is home to the Clan del Golfo, a Colombian criminal narcotrafficking organization made up of some 9,000 criminals, which spread its tentacles in some 30 countries and is estimated to traffic around half of Colombia’s cocaine, France 24 reported.
Frank Ábrego, a National Security expert and former director general of the SENAFRONT, agrees that the use of technology improves the results of operations in such a complicated area as the Darién.
“Among the most effective capability that can be added are the technological ones for the surveillance, control, and protection of the borders between Colombia with 266 kilometers and Costa Rica with 330 kilometers, where it is impossible to have strict control,” Ábrego told Diálogo. “The Darién jungle represents a natural obstacle for high-impact operations. The technologies are expensive, but they help significantly in the security and defense of nations.”
This operation involves all-terrain vehicles, boats, as well as six helicopters donated by the U.S. government for humanitarian operations and the fight against drug trafficking, Panamanian Minister of Security Juan Manuel Pino, told Voice of America. “We also received collaboration in security equipment and intelligence information,” Pino said.
The United States is cooperating on an ongoing basis with Panamanian and Colombian security forces to boost their efforts to stop transnational criminal organizations from using the Darién Gap for illicit activities, La Prensa newspaper reported.
“The United States is a determining factor in consolidating security, not only that it complies with Panamanian society, but also that the results have an impact on the hemisphere,” Ábrego said. “Its well-known geographic position […] means that the forceful activities carried out against transnational organized crime have valuable external repercussions.”
U.S. Army General Laura J. Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command, noted during her most recent visit to Panama that the partnership with the country “reflects our enduring commitment to the region and our shared interest in a secure and peaceful hemisphere,” La Verdad Panama reported on June 15.
Gen. Richardson added, according to EFE news agency, that the U.S. will continue to support institutional capacity building and training with security forces supported by the Security Forces Assistance Brigade and Civil Affairs, which are carried out in both Colombia and Panama.
Between 2022 and June 1, 2023, Panamanian security forces detained close to 200 criminals in the Darién Gap, the Public Security Ministry indicated in a statement.