Securing the Pacific through International Cooperation
By Dialogo July 03, 2013
Flying in a Colombian Pacific Naval Force helicopter over the thickly vegetated Bay of Málaga makes it clear why drug traffickers use this area as a transit point. This bay, near the midpoint between Colombia’s southern and northern borders, is a labyrinth of islands, inlets and shallow groves ideal for concealing fast boats or semisubmersibles. Southern Colombia also provides the most fertile and remote areas for growing coca and processing it in well-camouflaged jungle laboratories. Waterways like this along 870 miles of Pacific coastline mark the beginning of the sea journey of illegal drug shipments bound for Central America, Mexico and, eventually, the United States.
Colonel Gonzalo Aladino, commander of the 2nd Infantry Brigade of the Colombian Marines, assessed the estuaries near the port city of Buenaventura on a recent patrol aboard a flat-bottomed Marine patrol boat. “Due to the geographic configuration, due to the environment, it is in a zone that is ideal for the production of coca. Unfortunately, this zone, so rich in mineral resources and biodiversity, has become a critical zone for terrorist organizations to conduct narcotrafficking,” he said. Col. Aladino said his Marines in the area have found everything from semisubmersibles and go-fast boats to workshops for the production of the vessels and cocaine processing laboratories.
Even with the challenges of finding small targets in the vast blue Pacific Ocean and thickly vegetated and sparsely populated mangroves, Colombia seized 32 tons of cocaine and captured 112 narcotraffickers in 2012. Colombia attributes part of this success to close maritime cooperation and intelligence sharing with its neighbors, especially its northern neighbor, Panama. By using technology, joint training and coordinated efforts, the Panamanian Public Security Force and Colombian Military are vastly reducing illegal shipments of drugs via the Pacific smuggling routes and choking off a key source of funding for guerrilla and criminal organizations.
To demonstrate the degree and fluidity of maritime coordination, Captain Joseph Thowinson of the Colombian Pacific Naval Force (FNP) recounted to Diálogo an interdiction that took place on February 19, 2013.
“We had very clear information that a go-fast boat was preparing to leave our waters near the border, at Punta Ardita,” he said. Colombian patrol boats and planes were tracking the location of the suspected trafficker and coordinating with Panamanian and U.S. vessels waiting off Panamanian shores. The coordination between the three countries, as is often the case, was conducted through the Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-S) in Key West, a command and control center that monitors radar and shares information across the region. “So, the result of this operation was that the go-fast left our waters and the U.S. boat picked it up and followed it with a [Panamanian aeronaval] SENAN boat, and the seizure was tangible. In this case, 468 kilograms of marijuana, which was very positive.”
Thanks to bilateral agreements between Colombia and Panama, the two countries frequently exchange information. Also, the Colombian Navy and Coast Guard train Panamanian forces, both in Colombia and with a mobile training unit that makes visits to Panama. Colombia is also a regular participant in Panama’s most important regional training exercise, Panamax, which draws together countries from the Americas and Europe to practice securing the Panama Canal.
In addition to these, the two countries share information that’s crucial in capturing traffickers and their illicit cargoes. “There are many lines of interaction,” the commander of the Colombian Navy, Admiral Roberto Garcia, told Diálogo. “One of the most important is intelligence. Today, with Colombian intelligence, Panama has executed successful operations whereby the Colombian Navy receives certificates from the government of Panama crediting the results to Colombian intelligence and the close communications.”
Colombian FNP Coast Guard Captain Carlos Delgado said intelligence cannot be underestimated when it comes to stopping semisubmersibles, the seagoing vessels designed by drug traffickers to evade detection while transporting large quantities of narcotics to distant shores. The low-profile fiberglass and wood vessels are nearly undetectable once in high seas. In addition, the light fuel consumption needed to maintain a speed of eight to 10 knots means the heat they produce quickly dissipates in the surrounding water, foiling detection via thermal imaging systems.
In 2013, intelligence sharing between Colombia and Ecuador led to a seizure of the first fully submersible vessel in an estuary along the shared border. While the vessel was grabbed before its maiden voyage, it provided a glimpse at the level of technology achieved by traffickers.
In Panama, the Public Security Force has been responsible for territorial defense since 1990, when the armed forces were abolished by popular referendum. In recent years, Panama has invested tens of millions of dollars in new air and sea radar, maritime stations and assets, including helicopters and patrol boats to help its Public Security Force combat what it deems narcoterrorism. Speaking to Diálogo at a July 2012 conference in Bogotá, Panamanian Vice Minister of Public Security Alejandro Garuz said combating narcoterrorism is the country’s top security priority. “Now, as the Public Security Force, as the Ministry of Public Security, we take on the challenge of confronting narcotrafficking. Unfortunately, due to its geographic position, Panama is the first country in the region that feels the impact from three South American producer countries,” he said. “[Narcotraffickers] used our maritime, air and land areas to transit drugs to northern markets. Evidently, part of these drugs remain in our country and were affecting our population.”
Garuz participated in the meeting of the IV South American Defense Conference because, as he said, Panama maintains two positions straddling South America and Central America. He added that Panama is establishing a center of information and intelligence oriented specifically towards narcoterrorism so that information about these transregional threats can be shared with all the countries affected.
Maritime cooperation between Panama and Colombia is active and strong, say Colombian authorities from the Bahia Málaga Naval Base. “They maintain constant communication and through all of the means and technology that we have for intelligence, there is permanent interaction precisely to detect, prevent and cut passage of those aligned with narcotrafficking,” said Colombian Marine Col. Aladino. Asked what threat remains in the combined fight against drug traffickers, Col. Aladino underscored the importance of confidence building between partner nations. “The principal threat that can affect this is lack of confidence. This confidence is very strong. With the confidence between these countries, between our armed forces to unite and cooperate with information and exchange of information in real time, we can confront problems more efficiently.”