A line of tourist buses wait to cross from Costa Rica to Panama at the Paso Canoas border crossing. The majority of passengers are traveling to shop at Panamanian shopping centers.
On the other side of the border, an endless line of trucks are stuck waiting along the Inter-American Highway while drivers fill out legal paperwork to continue their journey. Their vehicles are loaded with merchandise destined for Central American countries.
Paso Canoas is a hot and humid place where immigration and customs posts operate among 200 shops that sell food, clothing, appliances, fragrances, and other merchandise on both sides of the border. Thousands of tourists, transportation workers, and merchants visit the area daily.
According to figures provided by the Office of the Comptroller of Panama, nearly 300,000 people enter via the land border between Panama and Costa Rica each year. Nearly 210,000 do so through Paso Canoas in the Pacific region.
The organization stated there is no official statistic from the Paso Canoas Chamber of Commerce on the amount of money exchanged through that border crossing, which has the heaviest flow of commercial goods and passengers. But they estimate that it is in the tens of millions of dollars per year.
New security forces
For years, the regular police in both countries took charge of security duties in the area, but due to the activities of organized criminal networks, both countries have trained special forces on maintaining security along their borders.
In Panama, border security is in the hands of the National Border Service (SENAFRONT, per its Spanish acronym), while in Costa Rica, it is managed by the Border Police Directorate (PFCR, per its Spanish acronym).
Both entities face a daunting task, as this area is plagued by gangs devoted to drug trafficking, arms smuggling, human trafficking and contraband.
At present, the border security forces of both countries continually exchange information and hold periodic coordinating meetings to be more effective in their work. They do not allow criminals to go into hiding on either side of the border.
There are two other checkpoints between both countries - Río Sereno and Guabito - where the flow is much lighter than at Paso Canoas.
However, the authorities in both countries reached an accord to build a new bridge over the Sixaola River which borders both nations. This bridge will bring a heavier flow of people into the Guabito area.
In light of this, both countries’ security forces will begin a pilot program to achieve a better level of coordination that keeps criminals from fleeing justice by crossing from country to country.
“The section of the Sixaola River that flows into the sea is an area that some people use to move drugs between countries and trick the system,” Commissioner Allan Obando Flores, director of PFCR, confirmed to Diálogo.
“PFCR and SENAFRONT units, and the offices of the attorney general in both countries are working together, and they will exchange information as needed to bring cases to trial.”
Less formal mechanisms are also being considered for other cases, including the use of shared technology.
“SENAFRONT is currently working on building new infrastructure and assigning new units to the region,” said Commissioner Christian Hayer, commander of SENAFRONT, to Diálogo.
“We now have a training course for new units that will allow us to increase the number of personnel in Chiriquí, as we want to significantly bolster our units due to the number of border crossings that exist.”
Both security chiefs agreed that the main threats they face are those caused by organized crime — drug trafficking and human trafficking — as well as the immigration issue, which has garnered attention over the last year with the migration of undocumented persons from Brazil to the United States.
Panamanian authorities estimate that there are 200 illegal border crossings in the area. In addition, people own land on both sides of the border, including some commercial properties that have entry ways on the Panamanian and Costa Rican sides.
All of this complicates the work of our security organizations, whose agents also must patrol forested and mountainous areas and large stretches of land reserved for various crops, such as bananas, plantains, and oil palms, among others.
The fight against organized crime, in all of its manifestations, is very complicated, and in the border area between Panama and Costa Rica, the situation is made even more difficult by the large number of people who live there and who travel through the area every day.
However, authorities in both countries are working in a coordinated manner to fight criminal activity in the area in a more effective manner.