Panama’s SENAN Relentlessly Fights Narco-trafficking

Panama’s SENAN Relentlessly Fights Narco-trafficking

By Dialogo
October 23, 2015

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Like other Central American countries, Panama lies along the route transnational criminal organizations use to transport drugs from South America to the United States.

In 2008, Panama created the National Aeronaval Service (SENAN), a public security agency that continually patrols the country’s two coastlines – on the Pacific and Atlantic oceans – to fight drug trafficking and other criminal enterprises. And since 2009, SENAN has seized 121 tons of drugs, with 13 tons of illicit substances – mostly cocaine – confiscated in 34 operations conducted since January.

International partnerships, constant training, and comprehensive attention to isolated, impoverished populations through social activities and humanitarian aid are just some of the strategies that Panamanian authorities have used to achieve these positive results.

Diálogo
met with Commissioner Ramón Nonato López, SENAN's national director of Aeronaval Operations, to discuss these activities and other action plans that Panama is deploying in its fight against drug trafficking and other illegal activities.

Diálogo:
What security strategies have you implemented that have led to Panama's increasing control over its waters and air space?

Commissioner Ramón Nonato López:
All of our strategies are aimed at constant surveillance and at strategic points. Criminals bet on being able to evade law enforcement and established laws and regulations. We are betting on our ability to maintain surveillance at docks, naval stations, coasts, islands, territorial waters, and any spot that could be used as a route for smuggling illicit substances. Our patrols run constantly, without a break, 365 days a year. Every day, criminal organizations attempt to violate the security of our territory, so we are constantly patrolling, day and night. SENAN takes no rest from this labor.

Diálogo:
How many units do you have for operations between ships and planes? How many men and women are part of SENAN?

Commissioner Nonato López:
We have units posted continually in our air and naval sections. Our troop is 3,296 members strong. We have about 30 ships and 20 planes. Each operation involves a sufficient number of officials to deal with the criminals. The fight against drug trafficking is an ongoing task to which we are all committed.

Diálogo:
How have you engaged the civilian population to turn them into partners when it comes to reporting unusual events in coastal areas?

Commissioner Nonato López:
Engagement with the civilian population is part of our daily activity. SENAN has important humanitarian missions to fulfill, especially along the coasts and in remote settlements, referring of course to air and sea medical evacuations. This is a daily task that we perform for the common good, to ensure the safety of our citizens. And it is because of that commitment that citizens have become our partners. To reinforce these ties of communication and aid, a year ago, we created the Fishermen’s Watch program
, a partnership between the Aeronaval Service and men who make their living at sea, given the need to have our fishermen become prevention and security agents. Today, we have 4,000 fishermen involved in this initiative.

Diálogo:
Has the program already had a positive impact on fighting crime?

Commissioner Nonato López:
What is most notable is that, through this program, we have managed to decrease the rate of attacks on ships, we have created a culture of prevention of minor offenses, and we have decreased the rate of alcohol consumption among fishermen, which in turn has lowered domestic violence incidents and increased peaceful coexistence. When they joined the program, they were registered in a fishing and artisanal boats data base which provides them with a specific numerical ID, as well as an emblem that identifies them as part of the Fishermen’s Watch. They are also part of a population that is vulnerable to drug trafficking, so they have decided to guard their own environment through proper training provided by SENAN. They constitute an important partner force for us because they are part of our prevention and security network.

In parallel with the Fishermen’s Watch program, we have the toll-free 108 telephone line, which allows citizens to reach the Aeronaval Operations Center (COAN) for emergencies and to report a possible crime. Reports on traffic in weapons, drugs or persons are kept in the strictest confidence, so people should not be afraid to report anything unusual that they see. We are always ready to listen to them and offer as much security as possible.

Diálogo:
How do Panama’s international partnerships with the United States and Colombia in security matters fighting drug trafficking help SENAN in its intelligence work?

Commissioner Nonato López:
Without a doubt, the direct contact and the exchanges of knowledge and information with partner nations like the United States and Colombia have helped us considerably to deal with drug trafficking in all its varied forms. We have established excellent relationships by working closely together in the fight against international crime, which does not respect borders. We as authorities have had to come together, and we are in constant communication and constantly training in order to face this problem that affects us all.

Diálogo:
What do you believe has been the key to Panama’s success in the war on drugs, given that it seizes the third largest amount of drugs after the United States and Colombia, according to information from the United Nations?

Commissioner Nonato López:
I think that our success is due to the creation of a special force to combat drug trafficking, specifically the National Aeronaval Service. We were specially created for just that purpose, and in addition, we must consider the education and training received by each of our units. We are the only force in the region with training in both air and naval missions. Another factor I would like to highlight again is the joint effort of SENAN and law enforcement in general, and the strategic partnership with the friendly forces of the United States and Colombia. The existence of the Salas-Becker Treaty, which formalizes our international cooperation in drug enforcement matters, has contributed significantly to preventing drugs from crossing Panamanian waters towards Central and North American countries. It is worth noting that this treaty, signed between Panama and the United States on February 5, 2002, is intended to allow joint patrols of Panamanian waters and over our air space to pursue and interdict ships and planes that are suspicious or linked to drug trafficking.

Diálogo:
What is SENAN’s goal over the next few years regarding law enforcement and security?

Commissioner Nonato López:
Our goal is to become the premier operational force fighting drug trafficking in this region and the force that makes the most seizures of illicit substances. [We're] always standing watch because our units are continually updated, maintaining the trust, respect and above all, credibility that we have earned within the community, at the same time as we increase our presence with bases and deployments in each province. We will protect both oceans without pause, keeping criminals away from our waters. This will continue to be the goal for SENAN’s officials today, tomorrow, and always.
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