Spotlight: A Conversation With Our Leaders

Panamanian Air and Naval Service to Host CABSEC/SAMSEC 2017 Summits

Claudia Sánchez-Bustamante/Diálogo | 27 February 2017

Commissioner Belsio González, director of Panama's Air and Naval Service, spoke to Diálogo on February 14th to discuss the progress and achievements of the organization under his responsibility. (Photo: Claudia Sánchez-Bustamante/Diálogo)

The Panamanian Air and Naval Service (SENAN, per its Spanish acronym) will host the Caribbean Basin Coastal Surveillance and Maritime Security Summit 2017 (CABSEC) and the South American Security Summit 2017 (SAMSEC), which will be held jointly from March 21st to 23rd in Panama City.

Each edition of this event attracts hundreds of representatives from the security and defense establishment, as well as corporate manufacturers of defense and security equipment from across the hemisphere and around the world. SENAN and Panama will be at the center of a meeting that holds great importance for the region and where attendees will discuss topics such as the importance of regional interagency cooperation for solidifying regional security.

To discuss this event and its importance for SENAN in its role as host in more detail, Diálogo met with Commissioner Belsio González, director of SENAN, in Panama on February 14th.

Diálogo: Why is it important that the CABSEC/SAMSEC 2017 summit is held in Panama? And more specifically, what is the importance of SENAN serving as its co-host?

Commissioner Belsio González, director of the Panamanian Air and Naval Service: For us as a nation and as an institution, the fact that we were chosen to host this is important because the security leaders of Central and South American nations will attend, and we will be able to exchange lessons learned, mainly in the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking. Being able to sit down and share stories about our successes, our failures, or the lessons learned over these years, as well as making ourselves known to the region, is of the utmost importance to us. Having the great honor of hosting CABSEC/SAMSEC 2017 is highly important to us.

Diálogo: What are your expectations with respect to any achievements or the signing of any agreements during the summit?

Commissioner González: Panama, in having a transoceanic canal and an economy that is highly service-based, is quite attractive to organized crime, which uses that service economy to move drugs back and forth by sea. As a nation, we have reached important agreements with Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, and Chile; with practically all the countries with which we share this type of commerce.

Diálogo: What are your main goals as director of SENAN?

Commissioner González: This is a relatively new institution. It fell to us to create it basically from scratch. The institution arose from the merger between the Panamanian Navy and Air Force, and its purpose was to bolster the operational capabilities of those institutions. In merging them, we basically had to create a new organizational culture. We had naval officers, air officers, and even land component officers who were all chiefly committed to fighting drug trafficking, because of the responsibility that we have over our maritime areas and our airspace. Scarcely eight years have passed since we came together as an air and naval institution specifically dedicated to fighting organized crime, drug trafficking, and, of no lesser importance, delivering humanitarian aid far and wide throughout our country.

Diálogo: How does SENAN work with its counterparts in the public security forces for Panama’s national security and defense?

Commissioner González: Our relations with our other partner security forces, if you will, or with our sister forces under the umbrella of Public Security Forces under the Ministry of Security led by Minister Alexis Bethancourt, are in superb synergy. The National Police exchanges a lot of intelligence information with us, and that makes us more effective when it comes to carrying out an interdiction against a fast boat carrying individuals dedicated to drug smuggling. Our relationship with SENAFRONT [National Border Service, for its Spanish acronym] is much broader, much more involved. Since we have forged a trusting relationship with the Colombian government with regard to its military, and specifically with the Colombian Navy, we are the ones who exchange information with SENAFRONT when needed. That gives us the ability to exchange a lot of information on what is happening along the Panamanian-Colombian border, and, indeed, we share that information with SENAFRONT. We include them in that information exchange, the sole purpose of which is to fight against organized crime and against all of the organizations devoted to lawlessness along our borders and in our maritime jurisdiction.

Diálogo: Beyond Panama, how are your relations with partner nations and with the United States?

Commissioner González: Over the course of these seven years that I have been at the helm of this institution, I have had the chance to see how, over that period, we have received supportive aid from the United States and its various agencies. We have received training where our officers have trained in leadership courses, and where our subordinate units have honed their skills in courses on outboard motors, vessel leadership, or really, any number of on-site training and development activities that we have received from the United States government and that have helped us continue to boost our operational capabilities in the fight against drug trafficking. We’ve even received logistical support for our Nor-Tech vessels, powerboats we use for interdiction and many other donations that we’ve received over these last seven years to continue the fight against these criminal organizations.

Diálogo: How does that joint cooperation synergy occur with partner nations and between the various agencies? And why is it important to work together?

Commissioner González: We have a liaison officer at JIATF-South. It was about five years ago that we began that effort, and it has helped us make huge improvements in our operational coordination with the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. This has been an excellent effort in which our liaison officer has joined with other officers representing the various countries of Latin America, all of them united around a common goal. The main goal is to fight drug trafficking and organized crime. That’s the most important thing.

Besides the training and the sharing we do with various organizations in these countries that support us through training, we have also built trust, a trust that is now bearing fruit. Getting a partner nation’s intelligence service to provide us sensitive information has come at a great cost, but we exchange the lessons learned with humility. The experience that a country like Colombia has within its military — particularly the Colombian Navy — as well as the training that we have had from the United States government, from U.S. Southern Command, and from JIATF-South, are very significant and have meant a lot to us.

Diálogo: What strategies does SENAN use against drug trafficking and transnational organized crime?

Commissioner González: The strategy always goes hand in hand with the drug traffickers’ innovations. That’s why it’s really important to preserve our relations with South American countries, mainly Colombia, Peru, and Chile, where drug traffickers are constantly trying to come up with new ways of circumventing the security systems. But our strategy is mainly based on keeping our institution robust – in the sense of having units that are honorable and that can withstand the onslaught from organizations that try to bribe them – and it is also based on bolstering our resources and our naval tools for efficiently and effectively confronting these traffickers when they enter our waters. There are a high number of fast boat entries basically occurring more than 100 nautical miles from our territorial waters. They are practically forced to quit or take their sea operation farther out to escape our air and naval forces which, together with the U.S. ships that we interact within our territorial waters, are able to push those vessels out to sea. The acquisition of new resources has made us more effective every day. We’ve acquired aircraft and faster boats. Most recently we acquired six highly versatile 55-knot go-fast boats, and we are betting that those interceptors, together with the Nor-Tech boats, will be overwhelming in stopping entries by drug-trafficking vessels.

Diálogo: What achievements or advances has Panama made lately as to its own national security and the security of the region?

Commissioner González: Strengthening the security forces. As I mentioned, we work as one, as a single team: the National Police, SENAFRONT, and the Air and Naval Service. I think that by merging these forces, we were able to maximize our resources to take on organized crime. Remember, Panama is a neutral country. Its canal and its economy are based on being a country whose doors are open to the entire world. That makes us everyone’s friend, but also the enemy of transnational organized crime, and the enemy of anyone or any organization seeking illegal enrichment. That’s why it’s become necessary to keep this Public Security Force structure together, a job that the Minister of Security is doing quite well, inculcating in the directors and officer corps a culture in which each person intrinsically seeks to achieve our objective. Because public enemy number one for Panama and the world is organized crime dedicated to illegally moving or trafficking in drugs, or to any other kind of crime.

Diálogo: Would you like to add anything for Diálogo’s readers or for those attending the summit next month?

Commissioner González: Yes, I am very grateful that our country was considered, and that our Air and Naval Service was chosen to host this event. It’s an institution that is always willing to cooperate and lend its support for anything having to do with the fight against crime and transnational organized crime and one that is ready to build relationships of trust with all of you.

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