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Panama Fends Off Organized Crime

Panama reaffirms its commitment to halt the expansion of transnational criminal organizations in the country and the region.
Geraldine Cook/Diálogo | 2 July 2018

Panamanian Vice Minister of Public Security Jonattan Del Rosario believes that interagency work is crucial to face narcotrafficking and other crimes in Panama. (Photo: Geraldine Cook, Diálogo)

Panamanian Vice Minister of Public Security Jonattan Del Rosario doesn’t believe in shortcuts to guarantee security and defeat transnational criminal organizations, but vouches for interagency operations to weaken and combat them more effectively. State organizations’ joint and coordinated work, better equipped and trained public forces, and tougher laws to punish criminals and facilitate their prosecution are some of the measures that will allow for a more direct and effective fight against crime. 

Vice Minister Del Rosario talked with Diálogo and delved on these issues during the 2018 Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC), in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 9th-10th. CENTSEC allows Central American defense and public security leaders to examine regional security problems and identify measures to improve regional collaboration and eliminate illicit networks.

Diálogo: What is the objective and importance of Panama’s participation in CENTSEC?

Panamanian Vice Minister of Public Security Jonattan Del Rosario: To share knowledge and best practices to confront common threats in the region, including narcotrafficking, arms trafficking, irregular migration, money laundering, and terrorism financing, among others. It’s important to understand what other countries are doing, what worked, share experiences, and generate new approaches to know our counterparts and develop trust mechanisms that will translate into operational results, combined operations, drug seizures, and dismantling of criminal networks to guarantee the safety of our citizens.

Diálogo: Panama created the 2018-2030 national security strategy. What is the focus of the strategy to counter transnational criminal organizations?

Vice Minister Del Rosario: Our strategy, made with the support of the United Nations Development Programme, is part of an interagency and multidimensional approach to prevent and combat crime and instability with the support of citizens. This strategy has the support of every social sector and political party that are part of the National Concentration for Development forum. It’s the result of a very broad consultation process that includes workshops in the country’s provinces and villages. Panama is an international hub and platform, and as such, our country faces the threats of organized crime with greater intensity. So we have to work hard to safeguard the country against organized crime and drug trafficking, and prevent criminal organizations from using Panama for their illicit activities.

Diálogo: The Binational Border Commission (COMBIFRON, in Spanish) is a coordination mechanism the governments of Colombia and Panama created to address security problems in their shared border. What positive changes have taken place at the border?

Vice Minister Del Rosario: COMBIFRON is a bilateral mechanism that improved coordination at the operational level, providing better intelligence to combat criminal networks operating at the border. We were able to develop an annual strategic plan with highly precise follow-up indicators that resulted in positive operational outcomes, as reflected in the historic seizure of about 180 tons of drugs in 45 months. These figures are the result of our public force’s coordination and efforts.

Diálogo: Panama ranks third in drug seizures in the region. What interagency, joint, and combined operations are carried out for successful interdictions?

Vice Minister Del Rosario: The drug interdiction accomplishments are due to a national security strategy and a government plan to combat crime and instability on all fronts. The goal isn’t only to prosecute crime. It’s to guarantee the security and defense of our national territory, and on the social front with public spending, to guarantee universal access to efficient public services, and reduce risk factors that influence crime.

In addition, [the goal is to guarantee] the prevention of violence and crime on three levels (primary, secondary, and tertiary) and enforce the law. Coordinated efforts of all entities create a synergy to gain better results. As such, we’ve encouraged the expansion of our public force’s capacities with new acquisitions and investment in equipment and technology—aircraft, patrol boats, helicopters, and cutting-edge technology—which were used effectively to combat crime and helped reduce authorities’ response time to the population.

Diálogo: The National Police, the Air and Naval Service (SENAN, in Spanish), and the National Border Service (SENAFRONT, in Spanish) exchanged experiences and training with U.S. institutions such as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the Inter-American Air Forces Academy, and U.S. Southern Command. How has the country benefited from these exchanges in the fight against transnational threats?

Vice Minister Del Rosario: To confront criminal networks it’s important to count on a highly qualified and trained public force. Therefore, a great deal of resources in our national budget is earmarked to send our units abroad for specialized training to fight organized crime and other common criminal threats. We send our officers to train in the leading defense regional academies and institutions of Argentina, Mexico, the United States, and Canada, among others. This is definitely the way to create sound units and establish trust that allow us to move forward with the important job of guaranteeing the security and defense of our territory.

We have a long history of cooperation with the United States through different programs. Our initiatives range from container and load security to passenger information exchange systems, as well as training courses for public servants and the public force. We also have a number of mechanisms [for authorities to] meet on a regular basis, including a high-level security dialogue with the Department of Homeland Security.

Diálogo: In 2016, the Special Counter-Narcotics Force (FEAN, in Spanish) was created to increase monitoring to disrupt drug trafficking and cooperate with the region to counter this scourge. What are FEAN’s achievements?

Vice Minister Del Rosario: FEAN is a joint special task force that supports the National Police, SENAN, and SENAFRONT in the fight against organized crime, and specifically targets drug trafficking. FEAN has had positive operational results, as drug seizure figures have reached record levels in our country.

Diálogo: You once spoke of the importance of law enforcement to prosecute narcotrafficking crimes. What are Panama’s advances on that front?

Vice Minister Del Rosario: Panama carried out a set of legal and institutional reforms to protect our financial system and service platform to prosecute gang members and criminal organizations. However, we still face challenges due to the implementation of a new accusatory criminal system that was not designed to punish transnational organized crime harshly. We are working in coordination with the judiciary system to bring criminals to court and continue to revise the legal framework and face the new threats of organized crime.

Diálogo: Panama is developing the Interagency Center for Emergency and Security Operations, Command, Control, Computing, Communications, and Quality, known as C5. What progress were made?

Vice Minister Del Rosario: C5 will integrate cutting-edge technologies to guarantee security and reduce authorities’ response time to the population. It’s an operations center equipped with computerized georeferenced systems for emergency calls to police units and patrols, so as to dispatch the unit nearest to the location of the reported incident. It also has video surveillance towers, badge recognition systems, and other sensors to identify and match people involved in incidents and illicit activities, among other systems used in the largest cities around the world. We expect C5 to be operational for World Youth Day and His Holiness Pope Francis’s visit to Panama in January 2019.

Diálogo: What kind of international agreements does Panama have with regional countries to confront common threats?

Vice Minister Del Rosario: In addition to the traditional student exchange form of cooperation in the armed forces and academia, we developed agreements for exchange of information, intelligence, and immigration alerts to identify high-risk people who enter or move through Panama. These agreements allowed us to capture wanted individuals and high-profile criminals. As such, thousands of people with a criminal record were denied entry at our airports.

Diálogo: What’s the importance of regional collaboration to counter security threats?

Vice Minister Del Rosario: Regional and global partners and allies are needed to jointly confront threats, and CENTSEC is an excellent forum which allows for rapprochement at the senior and technical levels. There are no shortcuts to guarantee security. Communications and social networks also lend themselves to illicit activities and spread panic within the population. We must work jointly for a more secure, peaceful region, and for the wellbeing of our countries.

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