Members of Panama’s and Costa Rica’s armed border forces, as well as members of the Panamanian Air and Naval Service, and the Institutional Defense Service will remain in the jungles of Darién for three months. The goal is for them to get trained in the Reconnaissance and Combat course taught by Panama’s National Border Service (SENAFRONT, per its Spanish acronym).
“The course is important at a strategic level because it trains the units to become part of the Reconnaissance and Combat Group (RECOM, per its Spanish acronym), which is the tip of the spear in the fight against narcoterrorism and transnational organized crime,” Commissioner Oriel Oscar Ortega Benítez, the assistant director of SENAFRONT, told Diálogo. “The units that we train here are going to get to a higher level than what is required of other groups and that’s why we proudly wear the black beret.”
RECOM is a unit from SENAFRONT’s Special Forces Group, which is responsible for patrolling forest paths all along Panama’s borders. The course, which is being taught at SENAFRONT’s facilities in the Darién province, in Panama, is focused on combating organized crime and drug trafficking.
Due to its geographical position, the isthmus of Panama is considered the first line of defense for this group of nations which blocks drug cartels’ trafficking of illegal goods. Last year, Panama seized 68.4 tons of narcotics, according to the Panamanian Ministry of Security’s figures, placing the nation at the top of the list for drug seizures.
A shared reality
Other nations in the region face a similar reality in having their border areas used by drug traffickers. That is why, since 2003, service members from Argentina, Belize, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and now Costa Rica have attended this training course on jungle reconnaissance and combat. Uniform training allows for more efficiency in joint coordinated action by the service members of the various nations that guard these border areas. This is particularly important when considering that those dedicated to crime work in transnational and transregional networks operate from country to country.
The Reconnaissance and Combat course runs for 12 weeks, on a 650-hour nonstop schedule. To take part in this training, the organizers require that participants be in excellent physical condition and have psychological resilience.
To solidify that point, on July 3rd, the day the course began, there were 80 students on the training billet. By August 7th—35 days later—only 39 service members remained. And if everything goes as planned, they will complete their training on September 22nd.
During the course, instructors teach patrol techniques, individual tactics, knots and anchors, rappelling, advanced patrolling, reconnaissance, and targeting and ambushing, among other skills. They also have classes on first aid where they learn how to transport the injured, in addition to other emergency techniques.
Similarly, they get training on international law, human rights, the criminal justice system, and the limited use of force. In this phase of the training, they learn how they must treat detainees, and they even see the issue of unlawful migration that all borders face on a daily basis.
“It’s not easy to leave your urban environment for a rural area and have to carry out missions under the sun, in the rain, while fatigued and in a stressful situation,” SENAFRONT Captain Juvencio Allard, who is in charge of the course, told Diálogo. “That’s why these units are trained in this course; so that when the unit goes out into the field on real missions, it has the capacity to face all of these kinds of difficulties,” he added.
“This trains them to carry out high-profile, high-risk missions, because we know that drug traffickers use their weapons to defend the illegal things they transport,” Capt. Allard underscored. “Everything concerning the training process and the course instruction prepares the unit for the risky situations that they will have to face once they are in the field.”
Bonds of friendship and cooperation
One of the aspects that they try to instill the most during the course is developing a sense of commitment among participants. Completing the course is a major challenge for them, and they give it their maximum effort to successfully achieve that.
“The course itself covers everything having to do with the mountains—which is very important—because in our work, we have to know how to move in those areas and [to know] the methods and techniques for doing so,” Costa Rican Border Patrol Agent Roy Daniel Jiménez said. “This setting is similar to the one in Costa Rica, but it’s larger. It’s a very good course and up until now, my expectations have been met 100 percent. I have the sense that my Costa Rican comrades and I will be able to complete it.”
“The main advantage to this course is that it strengthens the bonds of friendship between nations,” Commissioner Ortega concluded. “At the end of the day, we all have a common enemy, which is transnational organized crime. And this course allows us to tackle crime more efficiently.”