PANAMAX 2012, a military exercise designed to prepare countries of the Western Hemisphere for the protection of the Panama Canal, started on Aug. 6 with the participation of military forces from 17 partner nations. Alejandro Garuz, Vice Minister of Public Safety of Panama, spoke about that and other subjects in an interview granted to Diálogo during the VI South American Defense Conference.
Diálogo: Every year, the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), works together with the militaries from almost 20 countries from Central America, South America and the Caribbean, to conduct PANAMAX. From your point of view, what is the importance of this exercise for Panama?
Alejandro Garuz, Vice Minister of Public Safety of Panama: Panama received the Canal from the U.S. government on Dec. 31, 1999, and has since started the PANAMAX exercise to provide protection and security for the Panama Canal, together with several countries from the region and from Europe, by summoning the canal treaties and a treaty of neutrality. This exercise is, therefore, definitely paramount. The world economy transits through it and we must provide it with the international security that it requires.
Diálogo: Panama accepted the invitation from SOUTHCOM to participate in the IV South American Defense Conference, although it is geographically a Central American country. Why?
Vice Minister Garuz: Panama has always participated, because due to its geographical location, part of South America extends to our territory. We also participate in the Central American market, in other words, we maintain two positions: with South America and with Central America.
Diálogo: The countries gathered here that have armed forces are confronting a huge problem, mainly with drug trafficking. How does Panama, which does not have armed forces, take on this great challenge?
Vice Minister Garuz: After the invasion on Dec. 20, 1989, Panama took the courageous decision to eliminate the armed forces because for 25 years they were involved with the Colombian drug-trafficking cartels. That was when, in a referendum, the defense forces were eliminated in Panama. Now, as a public force, as the Ministry for Public Safety, we face the challenge of taking on narcoterrorism. Unfortunately, due to its geographical location, Panama is the first country in the region to get hit by three drug-producing countries in South America. In a study we conducted at the beginning of Ricardo Martinelli’s presidency, we decided to confront narcoterrorism because it was causing us too much damage. They were using our maritime space, our air space and our land to push drugs through to the northern markets. Part of those drugs evidently remained in our country and was affecting our youth. And that is when our president decided to confront narcoterrorism by earmarking millions of dollars for the purchase of radar equipment for coastline surveillance, aerial radar equipment, and aircraft, helicopters, and patrol boats, to make them available to the public forces to confront narcoterrorism.
Diálogo: If a regional defense force was created, even to support in natural disasters, would Panama be willing or interested in being part of this organism?
Vice Minister Garuz: Why not? It has already been proposed that we participate with entities organized for that purpose. In Panama, we are even creating a type of central intelligence agency designed to deal exclusively with narcoterrorism, in order to be able to share the information with all the countries in the region. Remember, Panama is a country where information is generated, first because it boasts of an advantageous geographical position, the Panama Canal is within its boundaries, it is the epicenter of all the transfer ports for world-wide shipments, it is a financial hub and because of the importance of the duty-free zone in Colón, which is the second largest commercial center in the world. All of it here, in our own territory.
Diálogo: Is Panama participating in Operation Martillo?
Vice Minister Garuz: Of course! It is participating in Operation Martillo and we are convinced that everyone, in South America as well as Central America, must join forces to combat narcoterrorism.