On the far eastern edge of Panama, a female officer with a camouflage uniform and yellow reflective vest controls traffic at a crosswalk at the corner of a school. When a student approaches, she waves to her and stops vehicles to help her cross the street.
Later, she'll join the classes to participate in activities with the children. Her goal: win the trust of the most vulnerable members of the population and rein in any external negative influences.
The officer is one of 50 female troops comprising the Integrated Action Unit (UAI, in Spanish) of the National Border Service of Panama (SENAFRONT, in Spanish). Created in early 2018, UAI has for goal to reach out to young people to prevent harmful situations in family, school, and personal environments, and avoid situations involving drugs and gangs.
“[They are] border officers working toward a culture of prevention,” UAI Captain Zuly Rodríguez told Diálogo. “Integrated Action is an operative unit responsible for developing activities with children that lead them to form ethical, social, and civic-patriotic values based on a culture of peace, to prevent children from falling into risky social situations.”
The UAI began operating in March 2018 in the province of Darién, which borders Colombia. Female troops deployed to various schools in the remote jungle region, where the unit will focus their initial efforts.
“In 2017, there was a high dropout rate, and, because of that, we designed this strategy with a female unit,” explained Commissioner Eric Ávila, national director of operations for SENAFRONT. “We also took into account the opening of the new highway [around 102 kilometers of the Pan-American Highway were restored in January], thus the need to begin road safety education.”
The Panamanian province of Darién is a dense rainforest of over 200,000 hectares. The jungle region extends to Colombia, and its 575,000 hectares are known as the Darién Gap.
The only way to get around is by river, a few narrow paths, and the Pan-American Highway, which stops in Yaviza on the Panamanian side of Darién, and resumes some 100 km later in the Colombian town of Lomas Aisladas. The inhospitable place serves as a refuge for transnational organized crime groups involved in narcotrafficking and smuggling of undocumented migrants headed to the United States.
Meanwhile, communities in the region experience food scarcity and lack of healthcare. According to the Panamanian Labor Foundation, a research center for social equity, 87 percent of local families live in conditions of extreme poverty. The latest data from the Republic of Panama's Office of the Comptroller indicates that almost 18,000 minors were enrolled in Darién during the 2015 school year, which represents about 32 percent of the population.
A positive school experience
The officers' work begins early every morning monitoring vehicle traffic near the schools and helping children and their families cross the streets safely. Although they appear to focus on road safety, the officers watch for suspicious passers-by and communicate their findings to their superiors.
During classes, officers give talks on basic knowledge, from crossing the street safely to personal hygiene, and how to identify bullying. They also address issues related to narcotrafficking and gangs. And they participate in educational and recreational activities, such as planning parties to contribute to a positive experience at school.
“[The goal of UAI] is to serve as a support system to educational centers, to improve student safety,” said Deputy Commissioner Juan Córdoba, head of the José de Fábrega Battalion based in the district of Santa Fé, in Darién. “And [is] to prevent criminal elements from attempting to recruit students at their schools for illicit activities.”
As representatives of SENAFRONT, the officers contribute their professionalism to the institution while gaining the trust of the children and the rest of the population. Shortly after they deployed, officers made some major strides and were accepted as part of the team at schools, with a major advantage: their uniforms represent law and order.
“I can see the change because [students] take the advice the officers give them and put it into practice,” said José Bazán, director of the Santa Fé General Center of Basic Education in the district of Santa Fé. “The youth receives direct education. We want to thank them for the help and support we receive, because it directly benefits the students.”
For UAI Officer Melissa Aldrete, assigned to the José del Mejía Educational Center in Yaviza, the experience with one child in particular was a success. “Papelillo was a child I always saw by himself. He was a very rebellious child,” said Officer Aldrete. “Today, the child goes to school. He is much more sociable and even calls us aunties.”
SENAFRONT plans to add more troops to UAI to boost the deployment in Darién. The institution also plans to increase the coverage area to include the province of Chiriquí and the township of Guabito—both on the border with Costa Rica—and the district of Guna Yala on the Caribbean coast.
“Directors, teachers, students, and parents took well to the program,” concluded Deputy Commissioner Córdoba. “Although it’s fairly recent, they obtained information from the kids themselves on cases of bullying, both inside and outside of school, and they found the help needed to stop it.”