Commander Belsio González, general director of the Panamanian Air and Naval Service* (SENAN, in Spanish), served as master of ceremony to the LVIII Conference of Chiefs of the American Air Forces (CONJEFAMER, in Spanish)—Panama’s first time as a host. The conference took place June 19 to 21, 2018, in Panama City, Panama.
At his inaugural address, Cmdr. González welcomed air force chiefs and representatives with optimism about CONJEFAMER’s progress in forging cooperation to promote disaster relief, humanitarian aid, and dismantle transnational threat networks. Cmdr. González spoke with Diálogo about the importance of hosting the conference, and SENAN’s strategic advances to develop its capabilities, among other topics.
Diálogo: Why is it important for Panama and SENAN to host CONJEFAMER?
Commander Belsio González, general director of the Panamanian Air and Naval Service: Being CONJEFAMER’s host is important for our country and SENAN, as we’ve tried to host it since 2000, and now after 18 years we can say our dream came true. It’s also important because it allows us to share knowledge and experience with commanders of the different air forces of the continent. It’s essential that these meetings take place within the scope of the System of Cooperation Among the American Air Forces (SICOFAA, in Spanish), as CONJEFAMER is our forum to exchange opinions and experiences, and share other countries’ cultures.
Diálogo: Why is it important for Panama to be a part of SICOFAA? What are the benefits?
Cmdr. González: Panama joined SICOFAA in 1970, and since then we’ve been training pilots and aircraft maintenance technicians through mutual assistance programs with member nations of SICOFAA. As a SICOFAA member, Panama was able to see the importance of this organization for humanitarian assistance when natural or man-made disasters occur. We actively took part in humanitarian operations. We were there for Ecuador and Mexico’s earthquakes, as well as Costa Rica’s floods. I hope a natural disaster won’t strike Panama, but if it happens, we can request support from our partner nations air forces.
Diálogo: SENAN turns 10 in August 2018. How has the organization grown since its founding?
Cmdr. González: SENAN was created on August 20, 2008, when the National Maritime Service and the National Air Service merged. In the 10 years since, the sustained growth of this institution has been relevant and important due to our units’ training, bonds of friendship with air forces of the continent, and the acquisition of equipment. In the last four years, under President Juan Carlos Varela Rodríguez’s leadership, the institution strengthened its naval and air operational equipment. We acquired two [series] 400 Twin Otter aircraft, and will soon purchase a maritime patrol aircraft to strengthen the fight against narcotrafficking.
Diálogo: SENAN increased its patrols and illicit maritime traffic controls. How does this strategy help reduce the activities of transnational drug trafficking organizations?
Cmdr. González: The strategic operational approach we’ve had since 2008 dealt serious blows to narcoterrorism and transnational criminal organizations that funnel illicit drugs through our Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. The recruitment, training, and instruction we received, especially from the United States, were beneficial and provided positive results. With each blow dealt to these criminal organizations, we reduce their financial and logistics power. Another strategy is the national policy to reduce homicides, carried out through the hard work of our security forces, such as the National Police (PN, in Spanish), the National Border Service (SENAFRONT, in Spanish), and our institution.
We carried out several joint task force operations. We conducted operations such as Homeland (Patria), Shield (Escudo), Darién, and soon Trident II (Tridente II) with support from the Colombian Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard, which join our public force’s components, such as the National Police and SENAFRONT.
Diálogo: The United States donated some naval and technological equipment to SENAN. Among those are two interceptor vessels to boost the Panamanian Special Boat Unit’s operational capacity to combat illicit drug trafficking. How does this donation help in the fight against drugs in Panama?
Cmdr. González: These two interceptor vessels provided a greater nautical mile range in our seas, which is essential when chasing criminals more than 100 nautical miles. Due to their capacity, autonomy, and speed, the two interceptors allowed us to deal strong blows to narcotrafficking. Next December or January, we’ll receive two more speedboats.
Diálogo: SENAN’s Fisherman Watch program is part of the 2017-2030 National Security Strategy. How does this program help improve security levels in Panama’s coastal areas and seas?
Cmdr. González: This program was created because we realized that many artisan fishermen used their boats for drug trafficking. We devised this program—similar to PN’s Neighborhood Watch—and decided to carry out a census to enroll fishermen, get to know them, and let them experience the government’s helping hand. The census allowed us to create a database. We enrolled more than 10,000 people in small-scale fishing, and coordinate with the Panamanian Maritime Authority to help fishermen legalize boating licenses and registrations. This program allowed us to conduct social programs and give prevention talks, so that fishermen learn about narcotrafficking and its threats.
Diálogo: How does SENAN prepare for humanitarian aid and natural disaster relief?
Cmdr. González: Humanitarian aid and natural disaster relief is SENAN’s second pillar. We recently acquired a barge to conduct humanitarian and medical assistance. It can supply potable water because it has a desalinization device, and can generate electricity in case of a disaster. So far in 2018, we’ve conducted more than 170 humanitarian assistance operations.
Diálogo: What’s the importance of international cooperation to defeat transnational criminal organizations?
Cmdr. González: It’s fundamental to strengthen trust in organizations whose mission is to counter narcotrafficking. Help from the United States, Colombia, and Costa Rica is key because of the partnerships for information exchange, communication, and mutual trust. The positive results prevent drug traffickers from navigating through our waters.
Panama already has the capacity to train partner air forces, and we continue to grow to hone our pilots. For air forces to maintain this active communication to mutually benefit our institutions and strengthen our aircraft and mission security is crucial today.
*Cmdr. González retired in July 2018, two weeks after his interview with Diálogo.