From June 5-9, 2018, Panama City hosted the Central American Regional Seminar on Countering Transnational Threat Networks. The event, sponsored by the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, convened 70 experts, including officers of the armed forces and police, as well as civilian professionals from 11 countries.
Through a series of lectures and interactive sessions, participants examined the threats of terrorism, transnational organized crime, cybersecurity, natural disasters, and other issues. Experts from Belize, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, the United States, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Panama addressed strategies and policies to confront these challenges.
“The seminar is important as a hub for the exchange of best practices, ideas that work, and didn’t work in the various member countries,” U.S. Army Lieutenant General (ret.) Frederick S. Rudesheim, director of the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, told Diálogo. “In this group of nations, we all can learn to fight against transnational threats.”
Creating counterattack networks
Transnational criminal networks represent one of the biggest challenges in Central America. Non-state actors, who are flexible and can adapt to changes, perpetrate crimes that affect the stability of the region.
Cooperation among nations, intelligence exchange, and coordination of strategies to combat transnational organized crime are crucial. Identifying the leaders of criminal networks and disrupting their illicit activities—trafficking in drugs, weapons, and humans, among others—are tasks that should be conducted with a united front. Participants agreed unanimously.
For Panamanian Minister of Public Security Alexis Bethancourt, who inaugurated the seminar, the solution rests on creating counterattack networks. “Countries have borders; organized crime doesn’t,” he told Diálogo. “Today, we take a look at these threats, we evaluate them, and we build networks to counter them.”
Experts stressed the importance of interinstitutional and international collaboration to disrupt chains of command and production of organized crime. Most of all, participants emphasized, it’s necessary to build trust.
“Trust is a factor that generates interagency collaboration, and distrust is an obstacle to cooperation,” said César Tapia Jiménez, coordinator of cooperation at the Mexican Ministry of National Defense. “Central American security can evolve toward expanded and collective security. This evolution can be achieved by fighting corruption and increasing trust among members, and by committing to providing resources to build a multidisciplinary task force that will act wherever the region requires it.”
Regional narcotrafficking situation
Due to its location, the central region of the Americas continues to be a bridge for the illicit transfer of drugs to the United States and Europe. As such, participants analyzed the situation at the seminar. Criminal organizations move drugs by land, air and sea—the Caribbean sea being among narcotraffickers’ favorite routes.
“Our reality would be different if the cocaine route didn’t cross over our countries,” Tapia said. “Also, some things cannot be shown on a map, such as the population’s suffering under the threat of organized crime.”
However, the fight strengthened in the Dominican Republic, said Dominican Army Colonel Raúl E. Mora Hernández, an event attendee. In 2017, Dominican authorities seized almost 16 tons of cocaine. In October 2017, the country launched the Empowered Society Reports application, which enables citizens to report illicit activities with their cell phones via text messages, photos, and videos.
“The message is completely confidential and showed great results,” the officer said. “Sometimes not only programs, but also principles and values are important, because in our region we have too many drug breaches. Narcotrafficking gets into our lives; it buys us out, including the authorities. But most importantly, […] drugs are the enemies of the future and hope, and when we fight against them, we fight for the future.”
For Commissioner Feliciano Benítez, Intelligence Chief of the National Border Service of Panama, criminal policies between countries must be more dynamic. “[Criminal] organizations not only use our countries to reach their markets, but also seek shelter,” Commissioner Benítez said. “Here [at the seminar], it’s not about seeking internal policies, but rather interstate policies.”
Among other topics, participants of the seminar analyzed the threat of dissident groups of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the new key actors of narcotrafficking and organized crime in Colombia. Participants also examined the mara and gang phenomena in Central America. In addition, experts discussed human trafficking for sexual and labor exploitation, and stressed the need to improve migration control technology.
Another discussion that generated much interest was inclusive security for gender equality in military and civilian institutions. Carmen Armidis Castellanos, a Dominican human rights expert, praised the progress of military women of the region. The Dominican Armed Forces, she said, have more than 30 percent of women.
“There is still a large gap [for] women, so they should keep striving,” Castellanos said. “Men should be understanding and tolerant, because it’s where they belong, not because they are women but because of their skills, empowerment, devotion, and dedication.”
The seminar was positive, Lt. Gen. Rudesheim concluded. “Most importantly, we are strengthening communication networks not only between countries, but also among members, the people here [who] know and trust each other.”