Progress made in Panama’s fight against narco-trafficking
By Dialogo January 03, 2013
PANAMA CITY, Panama – Panama found the best ally to bolster its fight against narco-trafficking: Colombia.
The exchange of information and experience in the counter-narcotics effort is one of the main international strategies implemented through the Public Safety and Defense Ministries of Panama and Colombia through the Binational Border Commission (COMBIFRON).
“There are no borders for drug traffickers. Visas and protocols can’t slow them down and their production levels are continually improving,” said retired Colombian Gen. Rosso José Serrano, who took part in dismantling Colombia’s Medellín and Cali cartels from 1991 to 1996. “That’s why the authorities need to come together and establish effective alliances to detect and attack them.”
Serrano, who works as an international security consultant and is Colombia’s former ambassador to Austria, said it is imperative Colombia share its counter-narcotics knowledge with its neighbors.
“We’ve already done this with Guatemala, Honduras and even with North African nations that also are suffering from this type of transnational criminal activity,” he said.
Panama, led by its National Police (PN), the National Aero-Naval Service (SENAN) and National Border Service (SENAFRONT), seized 30.9 metric tons (68,122 pounds) of cocaine from January to the first week of December 2012, compared to 41.3 metric tons (91,050 pounds) in all of 2011, according to Panamanian Public Safety Minister, José Raúl Mulino.
Nearly 90% of the cocaine that reaches the United States comes through Mexico and Central America, according to the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board.
“Hence the importance of COMBIFRON,” Mulino said. “These meetings, which are held twice a year, allow us to carry out analyses and plan strategies, exchange information and learn from the experiences of the Colombians so we can address a problem that goes beyond their borders. Narco-trafficking affects all of us. We are not islands. We have to unite in order to confront the cartels.”
The exchange of information among Panama, Colombia and the United States has played a critical role in battling narco-trafficking.
Mulino also highlighted the success of Operation Martillo, a joint effort between 14 countries in the Western hemisphere and Europe aimed at eradicating illegal drug trafficking on both coasts of the Central American isthmus.
“Many of the large drug seizures we’ve carried out have been due to the investigations and surveillance carried out by aircraft and patrol boats from the United States Coast Guard, which is working to help Central America in its fight against drug trafficking,” he said.
In addition, Panama has invested US$1.5 billion in the past three years to buy equipment, train security forces and build 14 air and naval bases along the Atlantic coast where large expanses of coastline provide ideal terrain for drug smugglers.
Eight of the stations are operational, with six others expected to be ready during the first quarter of 2013.
Mulino said he expects a total of 20 bases to be operating along the country’s Pacific and Atlantic coastlines by 2014.
The country also has purchased eight helicopters and received four patrol boats donated by the Italian government to help increase surveillance on the country’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Additionally, the country installed 19 radars, each capable of covering 39 nautical miles, beginning this past October.
Serrano said Panama’s strategic location demands authorities pay close attention and “strike hard” against drug traffickers.
“Take care of your country,” he said. “It’s healthy at the moment but if you don’t strike now, you could have problems. Criminal groups like the Los Zetas cartel are not far away.”