Panamanian Security Forces Cooperate with Colombia, Costa Rica, U.S. to Fight Drug Trafficking

Panamanian Security Forces Cooperate with Colombia, Costa Rica, U.S. to Fight Drug Trafficking

By Dialogo
November 16, 2015

Since the Panamanian National Border Service (SENAFRONT, for its Spanish acronym) was created in 2008, security forces have recovered territory in the province of Darién, where organized crime groups, drug traffickers, and terrorist groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), were operating.

“Drug trafficking is a large problem that transcends borders,” said Commissioner Frank Ábrego, SENAFRONT’s Director General. “A lot of money and people are involved in this, so the fight against it must be comprehensive, with continual, mutual assistance among affected nations. In this sense, we maintain a constant exchange of information, training, and instruction with partner nations like the United States.”

International cooperation in the battle against drug trafficking is critical to Panama's challenge of monitoring and safeguarding borders with neighboring countries Colombia and Costa Rica, which are key hubs in the drug trade. Both Panama and the U.S. have forged close ties of cooperation, which have been strengthened through training programs over the past 20 years, Commissioner Ábrego said.

Some of that training has occurred at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), a U.S. Defense Department facility operated by the U.S. Army in Fort Benning, Georgia, that develops courses supporting security cooperation for the Department of Defense and the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). WHINSEC provides professional education and training for civilian, military, and law enforcement students from nations throughout the Western Hemisphere.

In 2009, for example, 30 SENAFRONT officials trained at WHINSEC before forming SENAFRONT's first Mobility Squadron later in the year and regaining control of the Darién area through land and river patrols. In turn, the Mobility Squadron members shared their knowledge with fellow SENAFRONT members. Today, SENAFRONT has seven Mobile Squadrons, consisting of 100 officers each, that continually monitor Darién's forests for organized crime activity.

In addition to providing training, the U.S. has supplied Panama with equipment, including coastal patrol ships, high-tech equipment for wireless voice and data communications, and ground patrol vehicles for border areas, among other items. The Office of Security Cooperation (OSC) at the U.S. Embassy in Panama made the most recent donation on July 31, when it presented 11 J8 Jeeps, eight Boston Whaler ships, and 13 Ford F-450 pickups, according to OSC Chief Colonel Javier Cardona.

“The government of the United States offers full cooperation that includes not only physical equipment to fight criminal organizations, but technical training to use these tools, such as preventive maintenance, tactical usage of the items, and the education of officials are also frequent,” he added.

Cooperation between U.S., Panama reaps results

SENAFRONT has seized 4,713 kilograms of illicit substances since January 1 and has confiscated 30 tons of drugs – mostly cocaine – in operations along Panama's borders since 2009.

“[Panama's] government and security officials are willing to combat and halt this scourge [of drug trafficking], and this is something that we really value,” Col. Cardona said.

Col. Cardona and Commissioner Ábrego agree the cooperative approach to fighting drug trafficking and other illegal enterprises is yielding positive results.

“The economic worth of our aid programs is nothing compared to the human value in terms of security and stability we can provide to this country in the midst of this daily, ceaseless fight,” Col. Cardona explained. “Panama is a clear example. We have excellent communication, collaboration and coordination between the different law enforcement agencies of both countries, which reinforce our bonds of cooperation and friendship.”

Continuing vigilance

SENAFRONT officials are moving forward with initiatives designed to further improve public safety in border regions, including adding four monitoring posts along Panama's border with Colombia, which would supplement the two already in operation.

“Right now, we have just achieved two (initiatives) with Colombian Military Forces and the police,” Commissioner Ábrego said. “One of them, called Unión, includes 40 service members from Panama and 60 from Colombia working together, and the other, in Altos El Limón, is where we have worked with the Colombian National Police’s Counter-narcotics Division to develop an advanced monitoring post with 40 service members from Special Forces on our side and the same number of units on their side.”

In 2008, Panama and Colombia formalized cooperative efforts in their counter-narcotics fight by creating the Binational Border Commission (COMBIFRON), which comprises intelligence authorities and security forces from both countries and establishes an exchange of information between them. Meanwhile, on the Costa Rican side, security authorities held an initial meeting in February and set forth various pre-agreements, such as collaboration and bolstering security on both sides of the border.