To keep its 2,988 kilometers of coastline, and nearly 1,518 islands in Panamanian waters from being used by groups dedicated to organized crime, the National Air and Naval Service (SENAN, per its Spanish acronym) created the Air and Naval Marine Corps as a tactical operational branch that has jurisdiction throughout the isthmus. “The marines’ fight against criminal activities, such as drug trafficking and contraband, among others, is no easy task if you consider the conditions on the ground in mangrove swamps and reefs, and the huge stretches of beaches that have to be patrolled,” stated Second Lieutenant Daniel Navas, of the Air and Naval Marine Corps.
At the time of its creation on March 21, 2014, the unit had 100 personnel trained to face the adversities posed by their theater of operations. Today, the group has 205 marines focused on performing land patrols and carrying out reconnaissance and incursion duties in hard-to-reach areas. It also has a permanent presence at observation and security posts in areas that are far from the coasts.
“The Air and Naval Marine Corps is present in the Caribbean Sea and in Panama’s Pacific Ocean region. They act as a support element for controlling sea traffic in maritime interdiction on coastal patrol boats, from which they perform security duties during vessel boardings and inspections,” 2nd Lt. Navas added. “Likewise, they conduct air operations in which they carry out the duties as tactical operational units. To secure targets in hard-to-reach zones, they use airborne rappelling, sliding down ropes from rotary wing aircraft.”
A persistent struggle
Panama’s islands and coastal areas are constantly in the sights of transnational organized crime groups – the same groups that use them as hideouts for their illegal transfers. In 2016, government security agencies seized a record 68.4 tons of drugs. Compared to previous years, SENAN is second among the four security services in the country to seize the most drugs every year.
That is why the Air and Naval Marine Corps undergoes ongoing training, to keep the marines conditioned so they can fulfill their duties. Internationally, SENAN has agreements with Colombia, Chile, Peru, and the United States, among other nations, to receive training at home or in these allied nations.
“This unit is an essential piece for the operations established in technical cooperation agreements with other Panamanian security entities,” said Deputy Commissioner Félix Kirven, the head of Panama’s Second Air and Naval Region. “We stay in communication to do combined operations and training.”
The marines have to be trained to be in motion for seven to eight hours without rest in difficult terrain, where extreme weather conditions such as downpours and stifling heat prevail. They must also remain alert in order to deal with heavy sea swells or rising rivers, and they have to eat only from their rations while staying camouflaged in the environment.
“Training a marine is quite complex because his theater of operations requires our office to be the mountain, while our offices are the rivers and the seas,” Second Lt. Navas added. “A marine has to be ready to leave his family for many days, aware that the work is hard, and the fight against drug trafficking is head-on and demands effort.”
National and international exercises
In addition to training, the unit also participates quite actively in national and international exercises. One of these is Panamax Alpha, a Panamanian exercise in which various state security institutions participate, simulating a variety of emergency situations. They even receive training from international instructors to reinforce plans and procedures that allow them to operate efficiently in different situations in defense of the Panama Canal.
“The mere presence of [the Air and Naval Marine Corps] has the effect of dissuasion, and thanks to their presence we have struck decisive blows in our fight against drug trafficking in missions locating stashes [hidden drugs], rescuing victims of human trafficking, and detecting groups or individuals acting outside the law, placing them at the disposal of the competent authorities,” Deputy Commissioner Kirven stated.
The Air and Naval Marine Corps also participates in international exercises such as PANAMAX, a multinational exercise sponsored by U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), whose objective is to ensure the security of the Panama Canal and the surrounding region. It includes armed forces from several nations across the continent, including Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, among others, to coordinate among allied nations on all operations relating to the security of the Panama Canal.
They are also part of other highly important regional exercises such as UNITAS, which is held annually by the U.S. Navy, and is also sponsored by SOUTHCOM. In its 57th edition, in September 2016, Panama was the host country for this exercise, with participation from the navies of Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, and the United Kingdom.
“It’s an honor to belong to the Air and Naval Marine Corps. Not everyone can get in. The best part is the satisfaction of accomplishing your mission, seeing the achievements made and seeing that every time the bell rings, there are marines in every part of the country ready to accomplish their task,” 2nd Lt. Navas added.