Panama’s security agencies have joined forces under a single operational center that fights crime in a united way and strengthens the regional fight against international criminal organizations.
This is Panama’s Regional Center for Aeronaval Operations (CROAN), which, since its February 2021 inception, has fought against narcotrafficking by sea and air; countered illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; and supported search and rescue operations.
Its director, Panamanian National Air and Naval Service (SENAN) Major Jorge Martínez, spoke with Diálogo about the CROAN’s vision and challenges.
Diálogo: What is the main focus of the CROAN?
Panamanian National Air and Naval Service Major Jorge Martínez, CROAN director: Our main focus is to exercise command and control at the strategic-operational level of the operational actions carried out by the SENAN and the Joint Maritime Force of Panama, to combating illicit trafficking by sea and air, illegal fishing, and support search and rescue.
Diálogo: What is your biggest challenge?
Maj. Martínez: To continue growing in terms of monitoring, command and control capabilities, and technological resources. We want to maintain our position as a leader in our region, as a country that demonstrates its commitment to fighting and combating drug trafficking head-on.
Diálogo: Who are its members and what capabilities do they have?
Maj. Martínez: We are made up of members of the SENAN, the National Border Service (SENAFRONT), and the National Police. We have monitoring, communications, and computer systems that allow us to follow up and control operations, as well as to have a real-time operational overview, both of our air and naval means, as well as of civilian ships and aircraft, which help in the best way to maintain the alertness of the maritime domain. Our personnel are selected and filtered by the sensitive information that is handled and trained in general topics such as command and control; information management; planning of naval, air, and joint operations; and specific training for each job.
Diálogo: What results have you achieved in the fight against illicit trafficking by sea?
Maj. Martínez: In 2021 we carried out 141 operations against illicit trafficking by sea and seized a total of 86,785 packages of illicit substances, and 226 people linked to this trafficking were prosecuted.
In 2022, we carried out 131 anti-drug operations by sea, responding to 320 alerts on both coasts and achieved a total seizure of 89,956 packages of illicit substances, 229 people were apprehended in connection with these events and prosecuted through the Office of the General Attorney of Panama.
So far in 2023, as of July 14, we’ve carried out 65 effective operations and detained the trafficking of 31,535 packages of illicit substances and 108 people directly linked to this scourge.
Diálogo: CROAN serves as a coordination and information-sharing platform for the region. How has CROAN benefited the regional fight against international criminal organizations?
Maj. Martínez: The benefit for the country and for the region is that we can plan operations in a more coordinated way, both among the components of the security forces and with partner nations in the region, so that our borders are not an obstacle to the head-on fight against transnational organized crime. To this end, we make use of protocols, operating procedures, agreements and treaties that allow us to interoperate and exchange information in a better and more efficient way.
Diálogo: What contributions has CROAN made to the fight against IUU fishing?
Maj. Martínez: In the past two years, we have carried out joint operations with Panama’s Aquatic Resources Authority and the Ministry of the Environment, in which we’ve seized around 80,000 pounds of seafood products related to IUU fishing. We also managed to detect three foreign-flagged vessels within the Panamanian exclusive economic zone carrying out fishing activities and took them to port for the corresponding administrative sanctions. Similarly, through our monitoring systems, we strictly follow up on the movements of the Chinese fishing fleet in our region, contributing to the exchange of information through these systems.
Diálogo: What is the importance of real-time communications for efficient operations in the fight against transnational crime?
Maj. Martínez: Communications are essentially important tools for maintaining effective command and control of operations at all times. In the case of maritime interdictions, it is very efficient to have good communications at all times, both with air and surface resources, to be able to direct the interceptor boats to pursue vessels that are involved in illicit trafficking, since it is necessary to keep the interceptor boat updated at all times on the positioning of the suspect vessel and thus be able to detain it in order to coordinate the proceedings for the prosecution of the cargo and of the people involved.
Diálogo: What kind of international cooperation does the CROAN receive?
Maj. Martínez: Currently, the international cooperation received is mainly the exchange of information through agreements and conventions with the countries of the region.
Our main ally is the United States due to its capacity to carry out combined operations, with whom we coordinate actions both on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Through a Memorandum of Cooperation between the governments of Panama and the United States, we have received support in the CROAN for the improvement of infrastructure, computer and communications equipment, training and advice to improve command and control capabilities. We work very closely with U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South) in the fight against drug trafficking. JIATF South is a very effective combination of agencies because they have the operational capabilities that allow us to be much more effective in our operations with the capabilities they provide.
We also have our neighbors Colombia and Costa Rica, with whom we form the Southern Triangle and with whom we have close coordination to carry out combined operations.
It’s important to highlight this combined work with them and with the United States because they allow us to use their patrol boats for combined operations. Similarly, we make use of the agreements that we have in force to establish protocols for the entry of aircraft into the jurisdictional air spaces of each country in order to follow up on the targets of an operation.
Diálogo: How does the CROAN work to respond to humanitarian and search and rescue missions?
Maj. Martínez: Once a search and rescue alert is received, it is analyzed, evaluated, and planned through the search and rescue department for the allocation of air and naval assets, and the search patterns to be carried out are established. If the case warrants it, coordination is made with neighboring countries, either to pass the alert or to update meteorological factors that allow better designation of search patterns. A strict follow-up and monitoring of the search actions is carried out, in order to make the best use of the means engaged in the operation.