The nations united for a single purpose: to attack international criminal drug trafficking organizations. Months of planning, information, and intelligence enabled the Colombian National Navy and the Panamanian Air and Naval Service (SENAN, in Spanish) to merge their capacities to carry out Operation Amphitrite (Operación Anfitrite), a joint effort in the Caribbean Sea that dealt a heavy blow to narcotrafficking organizations.
“We met with SENAN and proposed this operation to them. They were open to the idea from the beginning. We did the planning, signed a memorandum of understanding, and today we see the results,” said Captain Normán Iván Cabrera Martínez, director of counternarcotics for the Colombian Navy. “We coordinated with Panama and achieved interoperability, the exchange of information, and intelligence. The operation enabled us to build trust between our navies to carry out such procedures.”
In Greek mythology, Amphitrite was the goddess of the calm sea. The Colombian Navy used the name, a symbol of serene waters, to designate the first Colombia-Panama binational operation to counter the threats of narcotrafficking at sea.
The operation was planned over several months and took place in October 2017. For 30 days, personnel from the Caribbean Naval Force of the Colombian Navy and SENAN flew over and patrolled Panama’s international and jurisdictional waters to detect maritime transport of narcotics in speedboats known as go-fast boats.
Operation Amphitrite was made possible thanks to a bilateral cooperation agreement between Colombia and Panama for maritime interdiction operations in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Based on this agreement, the countries signed a memorandum of understanding. “Colombian-Panamanian relations work quite well in operational terms: the Panamanian team was very well trained,” Capt. Cabrera said.
Colombia and Panama work together to crack down on narcotrafficking organizations that attempt to transport drugs from Colombia’s Caribbean shores to Panama and then on to the United States. In addition to Panama, the Colombian Navy held combined exercises with Honduras, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic, among others. This is the first time, however, that a real world combined anti-narcotics operation took place.
“It's like the implementation of what we’ve trained for. This is the first real world action we’ve taken through a combined operation in the war on drugs,” Capt. Cabrera said. “We managed to get SENAN personnel embarked on both our naval and air-naval units, and we achieved perfect interoperability between both countries.”
The Colombian Navy used the ship ARC Victoria, an Offshore Patrol Vessel, for maritime interdiction activities. The Colombian Navy has a coast guard boat with a Bell-212 helicopter on board. During the operation, the Navy also deployed maritime patrol aircraft ARC803 to patrol the area between Barranquilla (Colombia) and Panama City (Panama). The successful operation resulted in the seizure of 2,500 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride, 500 kilograms of marijuana, and 20 detainees. It also blocked speedboats on these routes.
Colombian Navy officials now study new opportunities to conduct binational operations with allied nations to continue to attack the foundations of international criminal organizations. “We are in talks to continue to do these kinds of operations, which are to include both scenarios—the Caribbean Sea as well as the Pacific Ocean—to completely close the gap for speedboats departing from Colombia,” Capt. Cabrera said.
An example of bilateral cooperation
“Operation Amphitrite is an excellent example of a bilateral operation under Colombian leadership, specifically under the leadership of the Colombian Navy,” U.S. Coast Guard Commander Iain McConnell, liaison officer in Colombia, said. “These kinds of operations connect two countries at different levels and capabilities, enabling them to work together. These operations are very positive.”
Some of the procedures and tactics of the operation were based on models used by the U.S. Coast Guard in its maritime interdiction operations, Cmdr. McConnell said. Amphitrite followed the “Shiprider” framework agreement, which allows a security officer from an allied country (Panama) to board a vessel from another country (Colombia). The officer has legal jurisdiction, which allows for cross-border maritime operations.
According to Cmdr. McConnell, during the operation, SENAN officials flew on a Colombian aircraft to ensure their maritime laws were met. This practice is part of the Joint Interagency Task Force South model, known as “Host Nation Rider,”—the air equivalent to “Shiprider.” The interdictions were made under the jurisdiction of Panama and in compliance with its laws. Panamanian authorities processed detainees for criminal prosecution.
“This is a very advanced experience,” Cmdr. McConnell said. “We need to work together with other countries because narcotrafficking cartels don’t respect maritime boundaries. With Shipriders, it’s possible to operate more intelligently at sea.”
Drug interdiction was not the only goal on the high seas. “Seizing cocaine doesn’t work to dismantle illegal networks. The goal is to dismantle illegal networks, and for that we need to do a large investigation on land,” Cmdr. McConnell said. “The investigation receives ongoing feedback from the results of past interdictions.”
Sharing information during combined operations is essential to weaken criminal organizations. “As a transnational crime, narcotrafficking moves very fast. It’s constantly mutating and has a lot of power to corrupt. So, it’s important that we share intelligence information quickly,” Capt. Cabrera said. “We need to suppress narcotrafficking at sea,” he said. “To do so, international cooperation is necessary.”