For almost a month, Central American security forces used their capabilities to explore various Panamanian terrains during a course the Panamanian National Border Service (SENAFRONT, in Spanish) taught. The International Course for Land Guides and Explorers, carried out in November 2018, gathered 28 units of the public forces of Panama, Costa Rica, Belize, and Honduras.
The second edition of the theoretical and practical course sought to teach regional security corps knowledge, techniques, and the use of technological equipment needed to navigate different terrains. The course also aimed to strengthen the skills of troops that counter narcotrafficking and related crimes in Central America.
“Countering narcotrafficking requires our security forces to use this [land exploration] knowledge to locate the corridors organized criminal groups use, often cutting through jungle, mountain, coastal, and riverine areas,” SENAFRONT Second Lieutenant José Chacón, head of the course, told Diálogo. “This knowledge is not limited to fighting narcotrafficking; it’s also very useful in rescue missions, whether due to natural phenomena or to aircraft or vehicle accidents in hard-to-reach areas.”
Taught by 12 instructors belonging to SENAFRONT’s special forces, the course was divided into basic, intermediate, and advanced modules, with theoretical courses and hands-on exercises on the ground in the Panama Canal area, the Darién jungle, and the Chiriquí province’s highlands, on the Costa Rican border. The course was conducted with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Panama, which donated first-aid kits, maps, compasses, and global positioning equipment, among other items.
“What’s most important about this course is to develop the leadership the students forge as they take the classes,” Major Oriel De Gracia, head of SENAFRONT’s Special Forces Group, told Diálogo. “In addition to capabilities and skills instructors teach, they should be prepared to lead their troops through the best routes and paths to accomplish their assigned missions.”
In the first part, participants learned to find their bearings by using natural means, such as the sun, stars, wind, and vegetation. They learned the basics to estimate distances and time elapsed, as well as day and night navigation techniques with a compass.
In the intermediate module, instructors focused on topography identification on a map, the different types of coordinates, and map reading in general. Students also learned the concepts of azimuth, encirclement, and triangulation.
“The students showed a lot of interest,” said SENAFRONT Second Lieutenant Ariel Alvarado, one of the course instructors. “During the training, they learned many steps and performed excellent procedures, such as patrols.”
In the final phase, participants completed their instruction by using technological equipment, such as the Global Positioning System and other computer tools, to manage, export, and save the information obtained. The course also delved into additional subjects, such as evasion and escape, combat tracking, firearms, and basic explosives, and others.
“I learned a lot about locating operational targets using methods such as compass-assisted map reading and sophisticated tools, such as the Global Positioning System,” said SENAFRONT agent Jorge Muñoz, a course participant and a member of the Immediate Reaction Force against Narcoterrorism. “These tools help us get to a specific place safely.”
According to 2nd Lt. Chacón, the course dates back to SENAFRONT’s creation in 2008, when the few navigators in the institution were “from former Panamanian defense forces, and all were close to retirement age.” Seeking to train new generations with the support of the U.S. Embassy, SENAFRONT signed an agreement with the Colombian Armed Forces to create a group of instructors in Panama.
The first International Course for Land Guides and Explorers was taught in 2010 to Panamanian units. In 2017, SENAFRONT opened the course to regional security forces and opted to make it an annual, international course.
“We are proud of our institution being a pioneer in teaching these courses,” Maj. De Gracia concluded. “We gave instruction, and we also participated in similar courses in other countries, and were able to see that our educational level is very good. We are glad that our partner nations’ institutions trust us as instructors.”