U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) donated tactical equipment valued at $1.8 million to the National Air and Naval Service of Panama (SENAN, per its Spanish acronym). On August 30th, the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation in Panama delivered two Boston Whaler boats to SENAN at the Second Lieutenant Rigoberto Castillo Shipyard, on Perico island. The vessels will begin surveillance work before 2017 ends.
“The donation of naval and communications equipment will increase our operational capacity for real-time joint and combined missions,” Commander Belsio González, general director of SENAN, told Diálogo. “Having assets with interdiction capacities will provide greater effectiveness and response to narcotrafficking alerts.”
The boats are 37 feet long and with a fiberglass hull. They are equipped with radios, radars, gun mounts, restrooms, and cabins to rest. They were assigned to the naval fleet that comprises the Maritime Interdiction Network (RIM, per its Spanish acronym) on the Pacific coast, to strengthen the tactical response capacity of the Special Boat Unit. The donation includes thermal binoculars and wireless broadband radios, as well as tractors for towing.
“They will exceed the propulsion and speed capabilities of the go-fast [boats] used to transport illicit drugs,” said Commissioner Juan Pino Forero, director of SENAN's National Intelligence Directorate. The new vessels join the eight speedboats used for maritime interdiction that Panama acquired starting in 2014, as part of its Multi-year Equipment Plan to expand its naval fleet.
“The aid from the United States government represents a mitigating factor to prevent drugs from transiting or entering the maritime jurisdiction of Panama or that of other countries in the region,” Commissioner Pino said. “This would cause structures dedicated to illicit trafficking to change their routes on open waters, prevent the entry of illicit drugs, and decrease the violence and negative impacts to society.”
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Central America has become a drug corridor due to its geographical location between the principal cocaine producers to the south and the principal cocaine consumers to the north. The main routes drug traffickers use go through Panama and the Pacific Ocean. In its 2016 annual report, the International Narcotics Control Board highlights Panamanian actions to prevent and suppress illicit drug trafficking.
Joint combined capacities
“SENAN’s security strategy, created in coordination with other security institutions of the Public Forces of Panama, showed joint combined capacities to conduct different operations,” Commander González explained. “By understanding our capacities and limitations, the lessons we learned gave us the experience to conduct law enforcement operations, control, and interdiction of illicit maritime trafficking along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.”
SENAN developed strategies to neutralize security threats and strengthen RIM’s capacities. It enhanced its air and naval fleet with greater capacities and autonomy, and improved its positioning through the establishment of air naval bases in strategic locations. SENAN also strengthened the bonds of collaboration with local intelligence agencies and those of partner nations to standardize information. In 2017, SENAN units played a pivotal role in seizing more than 22 metric tons of illicit substances in 66 strategic operations.
“A comparative evaluation of criminal drug trafficking behavior between 2014 and 2015 indicates an increase in counternarcotics operations with positive results,” Commissioner Pino said. “In 2015, authorities seized more than 15 metric tons of drugs in 44 operations.”
Panama and the United States work to strengthen their cooperation in the fight against drugs and organized crime. SOUTHCOM supports SENAN with maintenance and repair projects for air and naval assets. SOUTHCOM also trains, advises on planning and procedures, contributes to the implementation of exercises for the security and defense of the Panama Canal, and supports professional exchanges to strengthen relationships among regional agencies.
“SOUTHCOM is considered a key ally for joint combined efforts in operational capacities, and for the help it provides in support of assets, operational collaboration, and intelligence to combat the threat of drug trafficking,” Commissioner Pino said. “Southern Command is a strategic partner whose values we share for more than 100 years. We work together for the well-being of our nations, the region, and the world,” Vice Minister of Public Security Jonattan Del Rosario said.
In February 2002, through the Salas-Becker Treaty, the governments of Panama and the United States formalized their agreement to jointly patrol Panamanian waters and fly over its airspace to monitor and intercept suspicious aircraft and ships. “The treaty helped prevent the transit of drugs from Panamanian waters to countries in Central America, Mexico, and the United States,” Commissioner Pino said.
Under the administration of President Juan Carlos Varela, countries in the region signed more than 20 agreements in the area of security, according to a press release from the Ministry of Public Security. “Security is about the level of cooperation and trust among government leaders, the security sector, and international bodies to devise plans that go beyond our borders,” said Minister of Public Security Alexis Bethancourt.