Panama Surpasses Its Record for Drug Seizures in 2016
By Roberto López/ Diálogo January 30, 2017It is reassuring to know that Minister Bethancourt recognizes the "benefits of having a permanent cooperative relationship with countries like the United States and Colombia."
I would have liked the Minister comments on the impact of U.S.-provided capacity building. Did U.S. capacity building help increase the number of "officials educated and trained in security" he places in "positions at ministry headquarters and its subordinate offices, as well as in intelligence organizations"? A total of 68.4 metric tons of drugs were seized by Panamanian security agencies in 2016, a record for the country, Alexis Bethancourt, Panamanian minister of Security told Diálogo on January 19th. He stressed the importance of international cooperation to defeat drug trafficking. Large quantities of drugs produced in South America are introduced into Panamanian territory via the coasts and then transferred by land, where the majority of seizure operations occur. “Operations are conducted throughout the country and we have had positive results at sea, on the coasts, and on the borders but the most effective [operations] have been on land,” explained Minister Bethancourt. Central America is one of the key regions where criminal organizations transport their illegal shipments. They use the countries of the isthmus as their principal drug-trafficking routes. “Because of its geographic position and its logistical and maritime platforms, Panama represents one of the main links for drug-trafficking routes,” said Commissioner Belsio González, director of the National Air and Naval Service (SENAN, per its Spanish acronym). The number of seizures in 2016 surpassed the 2015 record of 58.1 tons of drugs. In 2014, a total of 39.2 tons were seized, according to figures published by the Ministry of Security. Of the total amount of drugs seized in Panama in 2016, SENAN confiscated 29.1 tons, González reported. SENAN operates in the air, the sea, and on land along the country’s 1,690-kilometer Pacific coast, the 1,160-kilometer Caribbean coast, and in close to 1,600 islands. Another component of the Security Force, the National Border Service, operates along the borders of Costa Rica and Colombia and seized 2.3 tons along the 555 kilometers under its control. The rest of the drugs (37 tons) were confiscated by the National Police of Panama. Intelligence work Commissioner González told Diálogo that in 2016 SENAN conducted 74 operations with positive results. Meanwhile, Bethancourt highlighted the importance of both domestic and international intelligence work in planning operations. “That is why actions like ‘Operation Homeland’ and ‘Operation Shield’ served to collect and verify pertinent information that could contribute to the work of developing a security strategy,” he said. Bethancourt added that planning allows for “efficiency and effectiveness for Panamanian security institutions.” The fight against drug trafficking cannot be done alone For Panamanian authorities, international cooperation plays a crucial role. Minister Bethancourt and Commissioner González don’t just concur on this — they also emphasize the benefits of having a permanent cooperative relationship with countries like the United States and Colombia. Both officials stressed that improving and strengthening international collaboration and bonds of friendship translate to support when confronting the global threat represented by drug trafficking in the different countries. Commissioner González said that cooperation in the air and sea environments, particularly in Western Hemisphere countries, is highly important, “especially since the fight against drug trafficking cannot be fought alone [by a single country]. It is necessary to use resources to systematically engage in cooperation and the constant and secure exchange of information.” To achieve active cooperation and teamwork in the fight against international crime, Panama has agreements and memorandums of understanding with countries such as Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the United States, Honduras, and Peru. New equipment and training According to Bethancourt, another crucial factor for achieving good results is finding officials educated and trained in security, and placing them in positions at ministry headquarters and its subordinate offices, as well as in intelligence organizations. The minister also noted the “importance of improving technological equipment and providing training to people working to confront this scourge, as well as integrating officials from the Public Ministry district attorneys’ offices specialized in drug crimes who are looking for work that is more flexible and has better results.” In the past few years, institutions such as SENAN have increased seizures and criminal apprehensions and have sent more individuals responsible for illicit maritime traffic to the justice system. “Through the execution of a dynamic of strategic operational targeting, SENAN has confronted historical challenges affecting the financial-logistical system of drug-trafficking terrorist groups, stripping them of large drug shipments that are the engine driving their finances,” explained Commissioner González. At the end of their discussion on the importance of maintaining fluid communication and constant cooperation among investigative bodies within their country and with other nations dedicated to combating this illicit activity, the two Panamanian officials agreed to jointly engage in a decisive battle against the scourge of drugs in the region.