Panamanian Security Forces Unite against Drug Trafficking

Panamanian Security Forces Unite against Drug Trafficking

By Dialogo
May 22, 2013

Interview with Vice Minister of Public Security of Panamá, Manuel Salvador Moreno

The 8th Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC) was held in April in Panama, a nation that could be seriously affected by budgetary cuts in the United States if Panamax, an annual exercise aimed at training Western Hemisphere militaries to protect the Panama Canal, is cancelled. Diálogo interviewed Manuel Salvador Moreno, Panamanian Vice Minister of Public Security, during CENTSEC 2013 and talked about this and other issues.

DIÁLOGO: What is Panama’s main security challenge?

Vice Minister of Public Security of Panamá, Manuel Salvador Moreno: Our main challenge is to keep our people secure, in peace and quiet; to make them feel a sense of safety that allows them to live in peace with their fellow citizens and families, and for us to be able to provide that protection. That is the big challenge we have; hence, we have designed a robust security system integrated in several fields. And we are confronting this national security challenge with the cooperation of partner nations, neighboring countries.

DIÁLOGO: How did this cooperation materialize?

Vice Minister Moreno: With regional, Latin American and Central American nations, as well as with the United States, Canada and Mexico, we maintain a close relationship of information exchange, which has contributed to drug seizures and criminal arrests in real time. Thus, we have been able to counter criminal activities in our region, which also has a certain impact on local activities.

DIÁLOGO: What technologies does Panama use for these purposes?

Vice Minister Moreno: In recent years, the Panamanian government has integrated cutting-edge technology in its police forces, particularly on arrival and departure of people at Tucumán Airport. We have a facial recognition and identification system that can detect criminals who might be arriving or departing our country, so that we may perform intelligence, as well as capture them if there is any sort of outstanding warrant against them.

Furthermore, we have integrated the I-24/7 Interpol network, in order to extend communications with terminals at different airports, as well as on the border between Panamá and Costa Rica. We have also increased the communications system, so that all of our security forces stay interconnected through a single communication system of portable and base radios. Likewise, we are also adding other technological initiatives that have resulted in a direct fight against crime. We are having positive results.

One of our greatest achievements is that we will obtain the capacity to secure the country, such as monitoring all of our coasts and our entire airspace with 19 radars (ten in the Pacific and nine in the Atlantic). As well as the installation of 14 naval air bases, that will allow us to control our territorial waters and suspicious aircraft and vessels. This system will integrate the CSII [Cooperative Situational Information Integration] system used in the U.S. in coordination with other countries in the region. For us, this represents a strong impact on the fight against organized crime.

DIÁLOGO: Is the problem of weapons that drug traffickers leave behind and that fall into the hands of young people also a problem in Panama?

Vice Minister Moreno: It is a problem, because we know that drug traffickers pay their collaborators with illicit products when smuggling drugs through Central America. These drugs remain in our regional countries, and provoke turf wars to maintain control of internal markets, of the so-called ‘narcomenudeo’ (street drug dealing), which increases social instability among young people in Panama, as well as in all Central American societies.

We, the public and security forces, the National Police in this case, have taken internal preventive measures with the collaboration of other Panamanian ministries, so that we can keep young people away from drugs and gangs.

The Police is making a dramatic effort, not only in terms of prevention but also in terms of repression, along with the Judicial Police and public prosecution, integrating those cases in which these young people are part of gangs, into the judicial system to make it a punishable offense and to impose legal penalties. [Then] we turn them in to the public prosecutor’s office, and bring them before the judge. Several gang members have been sentenced in Panama, and several gangs have been disrupted by our actions; however, the efforts must continue, because although it is hard, it is not impossible.

DIÁLOGO: Is it a crime in Panama to belong to a gang?

Vice Minister Moreno: Belonging to a gang is considered in the scope of our Criminal Code as a punishable act, which entails a penalty. Nevertheless, there are three legal requirements established by Panamanian law: it must be proven that the group has over three members that attribute themselves to perpetrating crimes, such as theft, robbery, drug consumption, drug trafficking, kidnapping, etc; that there is a hierarchy within the gang, a legally-proven hierarchy between its members and, above all, that they have a territory where they operate.

There was another requirement, which was the use of tattoos or graffiti, but our gangs stopped getting tattoos and making graffiti, and we have been able to avoid that requirement, although we have been prosecuting them and we have been able to imprison adult gang members, as well as teenagers and minors. Even though there is a special criminal jurisdiction for minors, the crime of being a gang member also encompasses minors.

DIÁLOGO: How does Panama participate in Operation Martillo?

Vice Minister Moreno: Operation Martillo is an excellent form of international cooperation among regional nations and the United States. We have had remarkable results during Operation Martillo. The National Naval Air Service has managed to seize the highest amount of illicit substances in open waters with the collaboration of the U.S. Coast Guard. For us, it is very important to keep this activity in international waters, which has an impact on our regional security.

DIÁLOGO: Do you think budgetary cuts in the U.S. will negatively affect military exercises, such as Panamax?

Vice Minister Moreno: I think that as long as we are able to keep working and collaborating, regardless of the decrease in resources from the U.S. and the Panamanian resource availability, the most important thing is that we have every intention, all the good will to continue our efforts in the fight against this scourge that is organized crime.

We have a shared responsibility among regional nations to protect that interoceanic pathway, which is a world heritage, and from which everyone benefits. Regardless of any financial cuts in the U.S. economy, I believe that Panama and the regional countries will maintain the ability to respond and participate effectively in Panamax, as well as in the fight against crime.

DIÁLOGO: Would you like to add anything about CENTSEC 2013?

Vice Minister Moreno: We are very pleased that Panama has been chosen to host the 8th Central American Security Conference. We are a warm, open country; very inclusive regarding the participation of these events. We are firm believers that international cooperation, trust and mutual assistance among countries and governments allow us to do great things. Crime will not win the war: the good ones outnumber the bad ones.