Panama’s Biggest Security Challenge Lies in Southern Jungles

By Dialogo
May 14, 2012



PANAMA CITY — Panama’s Darién province is often characterized in one of two ways: the country's most beautiful province or its most dangerous.
Darién is in the southeastern corner of Panama. It’s the country's largest and least populated province, with 47,000 people in a region covering 12,000 square kilometers. Rife with rainforests, cloud forests, winding rivers and one of the densest populations of wildlife in Latin America, Darién is a far cry from the cosmopolitan lifestyle and skyscrapers of Panama City.
Most of Darién’s inhabitants are indigenous people living in tribes, and their only form of transportation is along regional rivers and channels in wooden dugout boats.
But deep in Darién’s jungle lies what Panamanian Security Minister José Raúl Mulino calls “the country’s biggest security challenge.” Given its shared jungle border with Colombia and its relative inaccessibility, the Darién is a possible primary entryway for drugs and Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) terrorists to cross into Central America.
“There continues to be evidence that drug traffickers and narcoterrorists are establishing camps within the Darién region,” said Frank Ábrego, director of the National Border Service (SENAFRONT). “The region is large and heavily forested. With increased regularity we are finding traces of drug camps and weapons.”

Clandestine campgrounds in the jungle

In late March, SENAFRONT discovered and dismantled a makeshift campground thought to be used by drug smugglers deep in the Darién near the Río Tuqueza. Weapons, ammunition and large quantities of food were recovered at the site, leading SENAFRONT to believe that the traffickers used the campground for weeks at a time. Earlier that week, Panamanian and Colombian security forces had dismantled two similar camps nearby that were believed to provide refuge for up to 30 drug smugglers.
The discovery of such forts, campgrounds and makeshift huts is relatively common for Panamanian and Colombian security forces in the Darién. Last year, SENAFRONT dismantled a camp presumed to be operated by the FARC’s Frente 57 faction. The base consisted of five lookout towers, explosives and small bombs, detonation wiring, plasma televisions, radio devices, land mines, a boat and several high-powered motors. Cocaine residue and production machinery were also found. SENAFRONT destroyed and burned all the confiscated materials.
“The intention of these criminals was to sustain a presence here to be used as a shipment or storage point for the trafficking of drugs and weapons,” Ábrego said.

Drug raids continued throughout 2011

Given Panama’s proximity to Colombian ports on both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, drug shipments often arrive here from South America via covert speed and fishing boats on the Darién's unmonitored beaches and travel inland via the dozens of rivers that connect to the sea.
In February, Panama’s National Air and Sea Guard tracked down two Colombians in a speedboat near the Pacific coast. The men had more than 300 kilograms of cocaine as well as weapons and radio devices.
Large drug confiscations off the Darién coast were a regular occurrence throughout 2011. In June, three Colombians were arrested carrying 297 kilos of cocaine, followed by a bust of three more Colombians with 353 kilos a month later. Four Colombians were also detained in June with 452 packages of marijuana in trash bags, and in December, a Colombian speedboat was captured near Isla Centinela off the Darién coast with 690 packages of cocaine, weapons and ammunition.

“Drug traffickers are continuing efforts to bypass Air and Naval Services in speedboats and by posing as fishermen,” said Juan Pino, chief of the Air and Naval Services Second Region. “We have been able to coordinate air vigilance with naval control to continue to capture considerable numbers of illicit drugs.”
Though naval seizures are the most common, Panama's Air and Naval Services uncovered a network of planes in April 2011 that originated in the Darién region. National security forces dismantled the organized crime ring, which posed as a flight school and used 14 small planes to transfer drugs from the border jungles to central Panama, where the drugs were then transferred for distribution throughout Central America.
Authorities seized eight of the planes and arrested 19 Panamanians, five Colombians and a Mexican citizen thought to have masterminded the scheme. Security officials also confiscated 265 kilos of cocaine, 15 vehicles, $16,000 in cash and five firearms.
“The valiant work of our forces continues to assist the fight against drug trafficking, illegal fishing and other criminal activities we face daily,” said Belsio González, director of Air and Naval Services.
In 2011, the Panamanian Air and Naval Services reported more than 30 successful confiscation missions, seizing in excess of 15,000 kilos of cocaine passing through Panama.

Constant fear in Darién indigenous communities

Most of the province’s inhabitants live in isolated villages, in remote jungles. Life is primitive, since most of these villages lack roads, electricity and running water. But over the past two decades, the presence of FARC terrorists and drug smugglers has made life substantially worse for members of the largest indigenous group, the Emberá-Wounaan.
Two political science professors — Central Michigan University’s Orlando Pérez and Vanderbilt University’s Mitchell Seligson — visited the Darién last year with a group of researchers to study the effects of drug trafficking on members of the largest indigenous group in the region, the Emberá-Wounaan people.
Among Emberá-Wounaan respondents in their study, 61 said they worry about the security of their communities, while in other hamlets across the region, 79 percent of inhabitants said they lived in fear.
“In the last two decades, at least 20 confrontations between Panamanian police and Colombian groups have been registered in the region, resulting in 13 deaths, including nine civilians, three minors and four police and guerrillas,” said the report, noting that as more police have moved into the region, inhabitants have more confidence in Panamanian security officials.
“I am confident that with time, we will be able to rid the Darién region of armed groups. We understand the importance of these communities to Panama and our heritage,” Mulino said earlier this year, though he conceded that “the situation will not be resolved overnight.”
Great work by our volunteers to keep order in exchange for their lives. God protect them wherever they go.
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