Panama Halts Cocaine Backpackers in Darién

The Panamanian National Border Service works tirelessly to put an end to transnational narcotrafficking in Darién province.
Roberto López Dubois/Diálogo | 23 September 2018

Transnational Threats

Units of SENAFRONT’s Special Forces Group demonstrate to Diálogo how they detained cocaine backpackers in the Darién jungle during Operation Escudo, in August. (Photo: Roberto López Dubois, Diálogo)

In July and August, the Panamanian National Border Service (SENAFRONT, in Spanish) seized more than 270 kilograms of cocaine in two operations carried out in the country’s east. During the operations, SENAFRONT’s Special Forces Group (AFFEE, in Spanish) neutralized a Colombian citizen, arrested another, and seized several weapons.

AFFEE’s operations in Darién aim to secure territorial control in the jungle area known as the Darién Gap, which extends toward Colombia. The elite unit also seeks to put an end to drug smuggling, focusing operations against narcotraffickers who travel as backpackers through the dense, damp jungle.

“Our main mission is to make every effort to prevent illicit substances from entering our country,” Major Oriel De Gracia, head of AFFEE, told Diálogo. “[And prevent] that they continue on to other countries in northern America.” 

Operation Navaja

AFFEE started Operation Navaja on July 3rd, based on intelligence from the Colombian National Police’s Counternarcotics Directorate. The information pointed to backpackers carrying illicit substances, who may have crossed into Panamanian territory. With the information, AFFEE devised a mission to locate the group, detain its members, and seize the drugs.

“The operational environment in Darién is very complex; it rains one moment, and the next it’s very sunny. [Units] work day and night.” said Maj. De Gracia. “They [the criminals] don’t rest either, and our units work nonstop until they fulfill the mission, as they are prepared, trained, and equipped for this kind of mission.”

In mid-July, AFFEE officers found a group of backpackers in the Darién area of Alto Tuira. Units waited for the right time to catch them and then ordered them to stop.

“With their knowledge of the terrain, they were able to determine where the suspects would pass through,” Maj. De Gracia said. “The suspects were ordered to stop, which they ignored, and instead opened fire on the units.”

In the shooting, AFFEE units neutralized a Colombian national; the rest of the group was able to escape. As a result, authorities seized three AK-47 rifles and three loaders with ammunition. 

A few days later, the elite forces seized 11 bags of drugs inside a hideout in the same area. The bags, found with the support of canine units, contained 230 kg of cocaine worth more than $7 million in the international market.

Canine units take part in patrols in the Darién jungle to help with drug detection. (Photo: Roberto López Dubois, Diálogo)

“Backpackers carry the drug from Colombian communities located on the border to a storage point,” Commissioner José Samaniego, commander of SENAFRONT’s First Eastern Brigade, told Diálogo. “[Criminals] hide the drug to then transport it to markets outside of Panama.” 

Operation Escudo

At the end of August, AFFEE units and backpackers exchanged fire near the Darién village of Guna de Wargandí. The armed clashes, part of Operation Escudo, resulted in the seizure of 43 drug packages worth $1 million, several weapons, and one person captured.

“Lately, we’ve had more incidences of arm bearing,” Commissioner Samaniego said. “In the past, we would see two or three armed individuals, but now there are more armed people.”

In the first encounter, officers confronted a group of four people, who escaped and left a backpack with about 20 kg of cocaine, an M-4 rifle, and a loader with ammunition. In the second, authorities detained Neider Palacios Pino, a Colombian national who escaped from La Joyita Detention Center in the Panamanian province of Pacora in 2015. Authorities also seized more than 20 kg of cocaine, an M-4 rifle, two loaders, 82 rounds of ammunition, a GPS, and two portable radios.   

For Panama’s wellbeing

AFFEE’s four companies—a total of 400 units—are committed to protecting Panamanian borders. According to Commissioner Eric Estrada, general director of SENAFRONT, the Darién strategy benefits from several components. The information exchange with Colombia, based on binational agreements such as the Colombia-Panama Binational Border Commission, in effect since 2000, strengthens the fight against narcotrafficking.

“One [of the components] is intelligence, which obviously attempts to attack the criminal structure as such, and an operational component that seeks to have an active presence,” said Commissioner Estrada. “A very important component is the integrated action that seeks to get to know the human environment of our area of operations, its needs, demands, and expectations, which allows both [the Panamanian and Colombian] authorities to come in and combat the problem.”

So far in 2018, AFFEE seized almost 340 kg of cocaine in operations against cocaine backpackers in the Darién region. Meanwhile, SENAFRONT seized 3,559 kg of cocaine between January and August 2018.

“Special forces commands are ready and willing to contribute to Panama’s wellbeing,” Maj. De Gracia concluded. “We work day and night, tirelessly, with hope and faith in our Lord for his guidance and care in all our operations.”

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