Guarding Panama’s land and river borders is the tireless task of the more than 6,000 men and women of the National Border Service (SENAFRONT). Their mission: to give no respite to transnational criminal organizations, criminal gangs, and flow of unauthorized migrants seeking to enter Panama.
SENAFRONT’s new director, Commissioner Jorge Luis Gobea Trejos, appointed in July 2023, an expert in terrorism and combating transnational threats, wants to strengthen the country’s security and defense agreements, reinforce the commitments signed with the military and security forces of partner countries, and work closely in the fight against cross-border criminal organizations.
To discuss these issues, Commissioner Gobea met with Diálogo at the facilities of SENAFRONT in Panama City.
Diálogo: What is SENAFRONT’s biggest challenge in terms of national security?
Commissioner Jorge Luis Gobea Trejos, director of the Panamanian National Border Service: In terms of national security, SENAFRONT’s challenges focus on all the transnational and cross-border threats that directly affect the social fabric and stability in border areas and in Panama. We are directly focused on the fight against all this criminal activity and its mutations in the current environment, especially in border areas.
Diálogo: The Clan del Golfo controls migrant trafficking in the Gulf of Urabá on Colombia’s border with Panama through front organizations. How is SENAFRONT preparing to counteract this border situation?
Commissioner Gobea: We can say that there are two different situations; one situation in the gray zone, which is in the Colombian area, and another situation as soon as migrants cross into national territory. SENAFRONT’s effort in depth is in positioning troops and patrols that constantly cover the areas that are used by the migrants and the migratory flows that try to cross into Panama. We understand the reality and are concerned about the safety of the migrants, and that once they enter our country, they do not fall into the hands of the networks of these criminal organizations.
Diálogo: What joint and combined work initiatives is SENAFRONT carrying out with the country’s other security agencies to curb criminal organizations?
Commissioner Gobea: SENAFRONT’s philosophy is cooperative security, and we practice it within and out of our institution and our borders. We are sister institutions, security institutions that were born together, we have grown together and we understand that working together is the key to success in curbing the actions and influence of organized crime in Panama.
Diálogo: What is the outcome of your operations in the fight against drug trafficking and other illicit activities?
Commissioner Gobea: We are proud of the National Air and Naval Service (SENAN), a government organization that is the spearhead against drug trafficking operations and directly impacts its illicit routes in the Pacific and Atlantic, and with which we work. Our work on land complements the river and coastal activities carried out by SENAN at the national level. We are one of the countries and benchmarks in the region in terms of interdiction, operational results, and cooperation. We work directly with Colombia and with the U.S. Coast Guard to directly combat the scourge of drug trafficking in all its forms.
Diálogo: How is SENAFRONT integrated and what kind of capabilities do you have?
Director Gobea: SENAFRONT is composed of five brigades, four of them territorial brigades that have defined areas of operations and a functional Special Forces brigade. Our success is to give the territorial brigades the capacity to complement direct actions with a specialized brigade that fights head-on against transnational threats, against national and international organized crime that seeks to use national territory for its activities.
Diálogo: What kind of exchanges does SENAFRONT have with the United States?
Commisioner Gobea: We have a relationship with our allies, principally with U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), at all levels, political, operational, and tactical. We permanently maintain teams that work on the operational growth of the Special Forces, teams that are in administrative and operational mentoring for the improvement of SENAFRONT’s efficiency. All this cooperation is focused on the national objectives of the country, in benefiting what Panama wants for the future and how we can contribute to this cooperative, regional, and hemispheric security and improve our capabilities.
SENAFRONT is the country’s first defense shield. We have positions on the border where we carry out operations and deny the use of our territory to transnational organized crime and insurgencies that seek our territory as a safe haven. Panama is sovereign in its territory, and this is thanks to our alliances with our strategic partner, the United States, the decisive support of SOUTHCOM and the Special Forces, which have created capabilities in our personnel and prepared us for the challenges of the future.
Diálogo: What’s new in the training of SENAFRONT units on human rights and international humanitarian law?
Commissioner Gobea: From the most basic phases of SENAFRONT training, human rights and international humanitarian law are a cross-cutting subject. Any type of specialization or training that is carried out in SENAFRONT is going to have hours dedicated to these types of subjects that are for us guarantors and respectful of the law.
Diálogo: What new capabilities and technologies are you counting on to curb the growing threat of terrorism, illegal immigration, and border protection?
Commisioner Gobea: The most important thing is interoperability and joint work, which are instruments of internal and regional cooperation. It is the best way to work. We can have teams, but if we as a team do not know how to work, we will be limited; we have the strength at the country level to be able to work as a team, to understand that we all have resources, that there are limited resources, but the resources are made available and used in a major common effort that yields results.
Diálogo: What progress has SENAFRONT made in the area of gender integration?
Commissioner Gobea: I led the gender think tank to seek to open opportunities for our female staff. We have to open opportunities and create spaces for them to develop. The female staff has a wealth of experience, they are mostly mothers and mothers have a different perspective on security; they have a different perspective on how to do the job in the communities and that is what we are exploiting. We maintain an exclusively female promotion because we are giving them exclusive training, preparing them and specializing them for the work and the security challenges that we have.
Diálogo: SENAFRONT units took part in the second Inter-institutional PANAJUNGLA course. What new skills do the personnel develop in this training?
Commissioner Gobea: At the beginning of the year, we put forward the proposal to revive PANAJUNGLA, a course that is emblematic, which hadn’t been held for 33 years. We designed the curriculum, trained the instructors, and launched the first course, which was a success. Now we are exporting that knowledge at an inter-institutional level and we are going to export it internationally in October, where we will invite allies and partners in the region, including members of the [U.S.] Special Forces Group Seven who work directly with us.