The Panamanian security services have obtained more than 20,000 biometric records on foreigners entering the isthmus through various routes. That figure surpasses the record of several nations combined, according to U.S. authorities, who have acknowledged the achievement.
“Panama [has] a state-of-the-art border management system that includes a biometrics-capture program called BITMAP for high-threat travelers,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said during a visit to Panama on August 17. “Using this program, Panama has captured and shared a substantial number of records, more than the rest of the world combined.”
BITMAP has been used in Panama for six years. It was installed in late 2011 at Tocumen International Airport, Panama’s main air terminal. The authorities also use the system at other airports across the nation, as well as at overland entry points. Since then, the system has received substantial modifications.
“Since September 26, 2016, this system has been running [verifications] using databases associated with terrorism issues,” said Major Guillermo Jaén, the head of the National Migration System (SNM, per its Spanish acronym) at Tocumen International Airport. “If a person appears in the database, it alerts the official in the moment.”
Who is in the database?
“Panama’s management of the BITMAP program is a model for the entire world,” John D. Feeley, the U.S. ambassador to Panama, stated in a press release. “We celebrate the idea of ‘community.’ What happens when a dedicated group of people meets and works shoulder to shoulder [is that] they make the community safer.”
The Panamanian authorities capture fingerprints from people entering the country as tourists. When they appear before SNM officials, the agents check whether they were previously registered. If not, they are fingerprinted, photographed, and their passport is digitized and saved in the same record. In certain cases, an iris scan of their eyes is taken.
Even people entering the country by foot through the jungle between Panama and Colombia go through this process. They must finish registering once they leave the jungle paths and arrive at the communities near the border. Later, those who do not represent a security risk to the region continue on their way.
Non-Spanish speakers handwrite their name and their nationality. They are then entered into the biometric register. The data collected is checked against other nations’ databases.
“People with alerts in the system are transferred to SNM to undergo a more thorough investigation. This is all done there in the Darién,” Commissioner Guillermo Valdés of the National Border Service explained. “If the person is a positive match [in a second registry], he or she is taken to a migration shelter to continue with the investigative process and determine whether or not a nexus with terrorism exists.”
“Currently, the system allows us to identify people who may possibly be trying to use another identity, because since we have their fingerprints on file in the system, the second time they enter the country, just by their pressing four fingers on the scanner, we can check to see the passport that they registered initially,” Maj. Jaén explained. “If it’s the same person, a green light will go on in the system, but if not, it will show up in red.”
BITMAP’s evolution in Panama
The BITMAP biometric system comprises a photography camera, a passport scanner, and a fingerprint scanner. The data is stored in an application called the Border Control System.
“The system is easy to use. Our agents were trained by the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Panama,” Commissioner Valdés stated. “Now a group is heading off to get trained to be facilitators who can train others so that there will be more people to run the system.”
“The system is really fast at capturing data. The process takes just a few minutes. Also, it’s not complicated to use, meaning that it doesn’t require a lot of training,” Maj. Jaén agreed. “It wasn’t hard to get it up and running.”
Currently, SNM is trying to get the database to be more user-friendly, with better communication with other databases that will allow it to identify people who may have committed other kinds of crimes. There is already a server at the Office of the Attorney General, specifically at the Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine, to check the identity of any person. This allows them to see whether they have ever committed a crime in Panama.