Spotlight: A Conversation With Our Leaders

Panama to be Most Secure Country in the Americas

Claudia Sánchez-Bustamante/Diálogo | 22 February 2017

Panamanian Security Minister Alexis Bethancourt met with Diálogo on February 13th to discuss regional security and the upcoming CABSEC/SAMSEC 2017 regional summit, to be held in Panama March 21-23. (Photo: Courtesy of Panama’s Security Ministry)

Given its geographical location as the central axis of the American hemisphere, Panama, with the support of the National Air-Naval Service (SENAN as per its Spanish acronym), will host the 2017 Caribbean Basin Coastal Surveillance and Maritime Security Summit (CABSEC) and the 2017 South American Security Summit (SAMSEC). Both conferences will be jointly held from March 21 to 23, welcoming more than 100 representatives from the defense and security establishments, and corporate manufacturers of equipment from around the world. They will discuss common issues facing the nations of the region in their joint struggle against transnational organized crime and terrorism, as well as the environment, the economy, and the importance of interagency cooperation.

Diálogo spoke with Panama’s Minister of Security, Alexis Bethancourt, so that he could give us a better perspective on the expectations for this event, the security gains his country has made, and the importance of the the event taking place in Panama.

Diálogo: After nine months in office, since May of 2016, what are your main goals as Minister of Security for Panama?

Panamanian Minister of Security Alexis Bethancourt: My main goal is to make Panama the most secure country in the Americas – not just in Latin America, but in the Americas. Why do I say that that is the main goal? Because from our beginning as a country, Panama has always faced special circumstances that would be risky in other nations, but we have always coped with those circumstances. One is our geography, which is clearly advantageous: it allows us to be the hub of the Americas, a central logistics point with the canal; but our geographical location also requires that we do more enforcement. We find ourselves in a trafficking corridor, and Panama is the leading country in drug trafficking interdiction, as the nations to our south are the largest drug producers, and those to the north, the largest consumers. So we are both blessed and hampered by our location. Another very important circumstance is our economy, which is based on foundations we consider to be airplane engines. You have to understand the Panamanian economy to avoid labeling it unfairly. We don’t deserve that. The Panamanian economy is not buoyed by taxes, but by the actions of state institutions that generate revenue. That’s why we pay lower taxes. The canal generates income in excess of $1.6 billion. And this is about us being the hub of the Americas. It is about our airport, our harbors, and our financial centers, which are the engines of this activity. It’s like having a five-legged table, even if one leg falls off, the table stays upright. That’s why Panamanians pay lower taxes. This is a concept that few understand, but it’s also a risk, as these same conditions open up the risk that the services and assets that Panama offers could potentially be used for illegal purposes.

Another blessing is our democratic way of life. As a fully functioning democracy, our citizens and visitors enjoy many rights and liberties, but these can also be used by organized crime and drug trafficking. So our goal is to make Panama the most secure country with this and the other conditions we have The goal, then, is to balance our security controls with our liberties, while respecting human rights.

Diálogo: Why is it important that Panama host the 2017 CABSEC and SAMSEC summits and that these two meetings are being held together here?

Minister Bethancourt: Among the duties that we have with other countries is cooperation. And the basic element for effective cooperation is trust. I can’t cooperate with you if I don’t give you information. And I can’t give you intelligence if I don’t trust you. So basically, the importance of Panama and our Air-Naval Service having been chosen for this event is due to both the nation and its institutions, including SENAN, creating trust. This is reflected in the effectiveness of our operations and in the effectiveness of our results fighting drug trafficking and organized crime.

Diálogo: What are your objectives for this summit? What types of gains or agreements do you expect to achieve during the summit?

Minister Bethancourt: The expectation for this summit is that we have a wide range of agreements that should be of benefit to our region and that we take a leading role in this effort, chiefly through cooperation. Organized crime and drug trafficking know no borders. The only way to confront them is to ensure that these physical barriers, these political barriers, and these borders are not obstacles for our nations, so that our security, defense, and intelligence services can share information and we can take action against these threats.

Diálogo: What important achievements or advancements has Panama made lately for its own security and the security of the region?

Minister Bethancourt: Panama’s greatest progress has been in the war against drug trafficking. We are the third leading country for drug seizures, after the United States and Colombia. But in view of the fact that the United States is a consumer country and Colombia is a producer country, it would not make sense for us to be ahead of them; so this is a most meaningful achievement. Another achievement we have made is that year after year we have beaten our own record in domestic seizures. This has several dimensions. First, it is [the result of] better training. Another reason is the preparedness of our Air-Naval Service and the border service, services that are also achievements. We have increased their capabilities not only with equipment, but also with training and leadership that is very clear about what we are trying to achieve. So much so, that we’ve done two big interdiction operations called Patria (Fatherland) and Escudo (Shield), through which we were able to divert the traditional routes that drug traffickers use out at sea. We managed to do that through these two operations alone. Later, we set up a special antinarcotics task force, which is going to have a permanent presence, and the task force commander will be either from the Air-Naval Service or the National Border Service [a member of SENAN or SENAFRONT, per its Spanish acronym] and will answer to the Ministry of Security – meaning that that higher entity will provide more capabilities. Another important achievement is our regulation on irregular migrant flows. In Panama in 2015 and 2016, we were hit hard by the flow of irregular migrants. The first of these were Cuban migrants. We assigned that to the National Border Service, which managed it quite effectively, and our partners in this region gave us their support. We were able to create air bridges to Mexico and were able to use the Central American corridor. Afterwards, we were hit with a flow of Haitian migrants who came in the guise of foreign visitors from other continents, and we assigned that mission to the border service as well. They successfully carried out Operation Flujo Controlado (Controlled Flow), which had several components. The first of these was a humanitarian component. It’s important to understand that Panama’s border with Colombia is a jungle frontier and migrants hike for weeks through the forest, ending up quite exhausted. Our units gave them support and hydrated them. Within that humanitarian component was a healthcare component in which [SENAFRONT agents] managed to vaccinate them against malaria and other tropical diseases. And the most important component is safety. By using ABIS [U.S. Department of Defense Automated Biometric Identification System] and BIMA [Biometrics Identity Management Agency], we were able to verify the identity of these people, and we also managed to collect the biometric data — fingerprints, iris scans — of people who were not yet registered in the database, which is managed by the United States. This means that if any of the people who came through Panama’s border with Colombia commit any crimes in this region, we would already have helped identify the person, which is an important security component. We have expanded the database by several thousand Haitian citizens. This migratory explosion is a regional phenomenon that has nothing to do with Panama; it’s caused by the problems that Haiti has had because of the earthquake [of 2010]. Some countries have stood in solidarity with Haiti, but they also needed workers. For example, Brazil needed workers to build the stadiums in the Olympic Village and for the World Cup soccer games. When those projects were finished, the economic migrants tried to move northward, and Panama felt the brunt of that. As I mentioned earlier, the capabilities of the National Border Service, which has 100 percent control of Panama’s borders, also helped move that humanitarian security mission forward. In the event that migrants cross our borders, we have our National Police, who have made seizures along the land routes in Panamanian territory where we have different multi-agency checkpoints set up to check for drugs, contraband, and human trafficking.

Panama has also raised awareness about the issue of human trafficking. We have reactivated the international fund against human trafficking and we are building a shelter that meets UNODC [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] standards. This is the only shelter in Central America that meets those international standards.

We’re also building up other capabilities, such as our anti-human trafficking operations, and not only for prostitution cases, as is commonly done in other countries, but also for slavery, child labor, and other forms of human trafficking.

We’ve been working hard and leading many initiatives in this region; and that is the path that we want to continue to take.

Diálogo: Why is regional cooperation among partner nations important for jointly confronting regional security issues?

Minister Bethancourt: The main thing is to trust one another in order to foster cooperation. Any nation that wants to contribute to the security of this region is welcomed in Panama. This is work that we have been doing bilaterally and multilaterally in different situations and against different kinds of threats. We are working, for example, with all of the countries in the region. In the Caribbean, we are mainly joined by Spanish-speaking countries, such as the Dominican Republic; by southern countries, especially those on our borders, such as Colombia, and by the Central American countries to our north. Costa Rica is one country with which we have integrated well. We even have bi-national relations through the Bi-national Border Commission (COMBIFRON, per its Spanish acronym), and we carry out projects with several countries on an ongoing basis. For example, Mexico has provided us training, capabilities, and procedures. We are currently developing the C5 procedure with Mexico: command, control, cooperation, coordination, and collaboration. C5 is important because it will enable us to self-evaluate and improve. We typically work in C2 mode — command and control — and recently we added C3 – coordination. Mexico has even offered us a set of benefits including training officers in our public security forces. Several countries are making contributions to fortify Panama and the region in this way.

Diálogo: And what about cooperation and joint efforts with the United States?

Minister Bethancourt: The support of the United States is key. The United States is the most important country for the support we get. And not just for cash support —because it can be said that Plan Mérida and Plan Colombia received much more money — but we did get databases, such as ABIS and BIMA that I mentioned, and training, equipment donations, and ongoing meetings that we hold with the United States, either at the defense and security establishments, or with the directors of those establishments, or at the strategic level, in meetings that the president of Panama and I have with the embassy. We have chosen to continue meeting annually with the United States in order to evaluate all of the strategies that we are using and to take stock of what we are offering to, and getting from, the United States. I believe that the United States is a key player for promoting regional security relations. Also, what Panama contributes to the United States, and the United States to Panama, is very important for this purpose.

Diálogo: Given your own experience and your pivotal location in the region, what contributions does Panama make towards a regional strategy for regional security?

Minister Bethancourt: Panama makes significant contributions to regional security and to the security of the United States. For example, take border control. The United States has the passenger manifest database for two countries in Latin America; Mexico, because it lies on its southern border, and Panama, because it is the hub of the Americas. In other words, Panama is already doing border control for the United States, from Panama.

Also, as I have already mentioned, Panama is the most important country in the fight against drug trafficking in that it is the third leading country for drug seizures, even though this achievement represents a large expense for our country: we have to process all the drugs that we seize, and burn them, which carries costs that Panama assumes.

Also, Panama has really stepped up its actions against terrorism and money laundering. We are the only country to have confirmed and identified some 22 Pakistanis who were on the U.S. terrorist watch list. We processed them and sent them back to Pakistan. That’s how Panama shows its enduring commitment to regional security.

Operation Controlled Flow, which was led by SENAFRONT, served to catch some folks. We were even able to repatriate some people with criminal records. That is, Panama is contributing a lot of capabilities and information to regional security. Take the issue of health, during the irregular migration periods that I already mentioned, Panama took the initiative and assumed the cost of vaccinating everyone who came through our country to keep a potential epidemic from spreading across Central America and to the United States.

Diálogo: What is your position on the Caribbean Community, CARICOM, adopting a regional strategy against terrorism?

Minister Bethancourt: I feel it’s a necessity. But before doing so, we have to smooth out certain obstacles. First, we don’t have active terrorism in the region; for us, terrorism is something quite remote. And even though there are countries in this region that have suffered from terrorism, it was more localized. The issue of international terrorism is something that all countries must confront, and we must all come to an agreement on it. Terrorism always looks for security gaps, places with lax laws, and places where capabilities are lacking. That’s why we need to reinforce this strategy at the regional level. Each country looks after its own economic interests, and each country will have something to say about that; so it’s just a matter of us coming to an agreement. Given its own idiosyncrasy, Panama is ready to cooperate. We are the only country in Latin America that has signed on to the coalition against ISIS, thus showing our willingness to cooperate.

Diálogo: What improvements and positive changes has Panama seen in the security of regions such as Darién, which was once considered a more problematic region?

Minister Bethancourt: I spoke with Commissioner [Oriel] Ortega [Batallion Chief of SENAFRONT’s First Eastern Brigade] about how the Darién area was before. We reckoned that irregular units had mobilized across 23 percent of that territory. With the creation first of DINAFRONT, or the Police’s Border Directorate per its Spanish acronym, and later SENAFRONT, we secured territorial control of the Darién. We have two binational bases with Colombia, and we are planning to get to four binational bases. We are also working with SENAN to incorporate members of the Special Antinarcotics Task Force at bases in Sixaloa [a border crossing with Colombia in the Darién Gap] to monitor Colombian warehouses and warehouses in Costa Rica, in the area of Piña [a township in the province of Colón]. We are working on an effort to interdict backpackers and to exchange intelligence information with Colombia, which is very strong in that area. Our Air-Naval Service exchanges information with the United States — with JIATF-South (the Joint Interagency Task Force-South) — and they are very valuable to us, as they give us information about potential routes for drug trafficking. In this regard, I am pleased with the work that SENAN and SENAFRONT are doing in the border area, but we also know that [the Darién] is a very difficult border and we cannot cover it along its full length. That’s why our work needs to be highly focused on the intelligence that we have. With stepped-up intelligence, the efforts we make in our operations will yield positive results.

Diálogo: Would you like to add anything else for our readers and for those attending the conference?

Minister Bethancourt: I would like to add that Panama is a democratic nation that respects human rights and that it is engaged in a full frontal attack against drug trafficking and transnational organized crime. It is a country that handles information with trust and confidentiality, especially in its security establishment. I am confident that in our effort to fight these scourges impacting our region, Panama’s security institutions — the National Police, the Air-Naval Service, SENAFRONT, and Immigration — will make great contributions to regional security, and you should have faith in Panama’s security establishment, as we will keep up this fight until we meet our goal of making Panama the most secure country in the Americas.

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