Panamanian security agencies came together under the Shield Campaign to counter transnational criminal organizations that commit crimes against the illegal migrant population that crosses the dangerous Colombia-Panama border.
Commissioner Danis Villarreal, current deputy director of the Panamanian National Border Service (SENAFRONT), who at the time of his interview with Diálogo was SENAFRONT’s director of Operations in charge of the Shield Campaign, spoke about the importance of this campaign and its progress.
Diálogo: On 2 June, Panama launched the Shield Campaign. What does it consist of? Commissioner Danis Villarreal, deputy director of the Panamanian National Border Service: The national government, through the Ministry of Public Security (MINSEG), coordinates the Shield Campaign, in collaboration with state security agencies whose objectives are to neutralize the activities of transnational organized crime on the Colombia-Panama border in the Darién Jungle, coordinate the non-admission and return of migrants, develop comprehensive actions in migrant-receiving communities and populations along the migratory route, and implement strategies to protect the biodiversity of the Darién National Park, declared a World Heritage Site in the early 1980s.
The Shield campaign has 1,200 units of SENAFRONT, the National Air and Naval Service (SENAN), and the National Migration Service (SNM), with the support of air, maritime, and technological capabilities.
Diálogo: How is this campaign being carried out, given that, according to the authorities, gangs of traffickers in migrants, arms, and controlled drugs, among others, are operating along the border between Panama and Colombia?
Commissioner Villarreal: The campaign was designed to address the migration problem, which criminal organizations use to commit different crimes, as is the case in Colombia with the Clan del Golfo, which controls the border area of the neighboring country.
The campaign is designed to be executed in several operations such as Operation Chocó, but these will depend on how the migratory flow is presented, as organized crime uses it for its own benefit. For this reason, the campaign has identified five sectors of the border area in which security, reconnaissance, and intelligence work is being carried out with the aim of maintaining territorial control at critical points where criminal organizations move, committing criminal acts against the migrant population and the environment.
Diálogo: What does Operation Chocó consist of?
Commissioner Villarreal: It’s the first operation of the Shield Campaign and its objective is territorial control and community integration, where operations are carried out through interoperability between SENAN, SENAFRONT, and the SNM to counteract criminal actions by transnational organized crime and its related crimes. We should remember that in Colombia there are different criminal organizations, such as the Clan del Golfo, which unfortunately controls the border area of the neighboring country and uses migrants.
The operation seeks to neutralize illegal activities in sectors of the border with Colombia through different lines of effort, such as the fight against international crime, the protection of the environment and natural resources, and the illegal trafficking of migrants, which occur in a jungle territory of approximately 266 square kilometers with countless illegal roads that criminals use to commit high-impact crimes and related offenses.
Diálogo: What progress has the campaign made?
Commissioner Villarreal: Our positive results counteract the criminal actions of transnational organized crime, and the operations to recognize and locate illegal maritime and land migratory crossings allow us to minimize human mobility through this region to prevent the illegal trafficking of migrants and to protect the biodiversity and natural resources of the Darién National Park. For example, between April 1 and July 17 , we made 433 apprehensions, including 23 for human trafficking, 26 for drug trafficking, 66 for micro-trafficking, 8 for smuggling, and 18 biometric alerts, among other crimes.
Diálogo: How do you handle the concept of interoperability?
Commissioner Villarreal: Through the integration of capabilities, effective communication, and the exchange of accurate and timely information among the security agencies involved.
Diálogo: The Shield Campaign was created by the Panamanian government; what kind of international support do you receive?
Commissioner Villarreal: It’s an effort directed by MINSEG that is complemented by the advice, training, and technologies that the U.S. government provides in the area of security.
Diálogo: What is the biggest challenge of this campaign to counteract criminal organizations?
Commissioner Villarreal: The biggest challenge is the complexity of the terrain, which is characterized by a jungle border with many illegal crossings where there is a criminal convergence carried out by criminal organizations. In view of this, we work on the configuration of the terrain to counteract criminal activities and support the migrant population entering Panama, who are victims of different crimes.
One of the campaign’s lines of effort is to integrate around 50 communities in the Darién that have been directly impacted by illegal migration, so we have to provide them with security, community support activities such as drinking water, environmental sanitation, etc., and generate sustainability alternatives such as agriculture and fishing so that they can become productive.
Diálogo: What progress has been made with regard to the environmental problem of the Darién National Park (DNP)?
Commissioner Villarreal: We are working with other institutions to teach the communities to be part of the environmental cleanup of the DNP, since UNESCO considers it to be a World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve. We do not know the exact environmental damage caused by the passage of migrants through the jungle, but we educate the communities, for example, to recycle, plant trees, and collect garbage so that the rivers do not continue to be polluted. Let’s remember that in Bajo Chiquito, the first town with about 400 inhabitants that migrants find when crossing the border through Colombia into Panama, receives on average up to 2,000 migrants at least, who produce garbage, so it is important that in those areas we have bags and containers to collect the amount of garbage they generate.