Deep in the jungles of Panama, National Border Service (SENAFRONT, in Spanish) agents await for construction supplies that will help them take down illicit drug and human trafficking networks that abound in the Americas. The dense wilderness surrounding the agents seems alive—the breeze rustles the trees making them dance, the mountains stand tall in the distance guarding the valley below, and the air is filled with the sounds of nature.
A whirring noise reverberates in the distance, akin to a sensory illusion. Gradually, the whisper evolves into a roar, overtaking the area, as a CH-47 Chinook helicopter peeks over the jungle canopy and the clearing erupts into chaos. The rotating blades of the aircraft whip up dust and debris that previously lay stagnant.
“Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment (1-228th Avn Regt Bravo), assigned to Joint Task Force-Bravo [JTF-Bravo], is part of a broader U.S. effort to assist the Panamanian government and their national border police with setting up a remote operating base in the Darien jungle,” said U.S. Air Force Captain Jennifer West, 1-228th Avn Regt Bravo company commander and Chinook pilot.
The Chinook crew of the 1-228th Avn Regt provided air transportation assistance from January 4-12 for the first phase of operation Darien Lift. “A SENAFRONT installation is under construction and a lot of equipment must be moved to build it,” said Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela. “We don’t have the equipment to transfer that amount of cargo in order to install this new SENAFRONT station; they are cooperating with that.”
The outpost’s remote location makes transporting construction material—nearly 1,000 tons of concrete, cinderblocks, and others—harder. JTF-Bravo’s maneuverable rotary wing-assets can carry more weight faster than bringing the cargo on boats through the jungle’s waterways.
Capt. West described the mission as extremely challenging without the airlift support and considers it “satisfying to know we’re actually making an impact and helping the Panamanians establish a security presence in the Darien, where there’s really nothing out there but jungle.” She explained the outpost will help SENAFRONT combat narcotraffickers and prevent their smuggled contraband from getting onto the Pan-American Highway, the transcontinental road well-financed and heavily-armed transnational criminal groups exploit. The groups fuel insecurity and instability as they conduct trafficking operations toward countries north of Panama.
In 2018 alone, Panama’s security forces confiscated more than 72 metric tons of narcotics, keeping them off the streets of the Americas. “With this being a binational issue that also has regional effects, the U.S. government has kindly offered to support us in this effort,” said Panama’s Public Security Minister Jonattan Del Rosario. “It’s closely related to the binational posts that we are building in collaboration with Colombia, mainly because of the phenomenon of drug trafficking, although the irregular flow of migrants is also monitored from these centers. That’s why we have developed an important effort to pursue human trafficking networks in this administration, resulting in the effective dismantling of 22 networks.”
JTF-Bravo, under U.S. Southern Command, operates out of Soto Cano Air Base, in Honduras, to support the United States’ neighbors in Central America and help partner nations develop capabilities and improve regional security. The year 2019 will mark the fourth Darien Lift the U.S. Army supports. Since the first operation, the crews have transported 152.5 tons of materials. They are scheduled to continue the operation.
The Chinook is a multi-role helicopter used in a variety of situations from transporting soldiers to destinations to aiding in combat missions. In addition to supporting the Darien Lift operation, the CH-47 also deployed to combat wildfires in Darien in 2016.
“The relationship between Panama and the United States is certainly a strong one, (us) being the partner of choice,” concluded Capt. West. “When the Panamanians request help from the United States government, I think it hits home that we are here to help.”