Rescue on Central American Borders

Servicemembers from three nations take a course in Panama with personnel from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Roberto López Dubois/Diálogo | 18 April 2017

Capacity Building

Service members from Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala participated in the search and rescue course in Panama in March. (Photo: SENAFRONT)

A group of 21 units from the Panamanian, Costa Rican, and Guatemalan militaries participated from March 6th to 30th in a Search and Rescue (SAR) course sponsored by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and taught at the facilities of the Panamanian National Border Service (SENAFRONT, per its Spanish acronym), in coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Panama. The course was taught by three U.S. and eight SENAFRONT instructors. Four Guatemalan, three Costa Rican, and 14 Panamanian units participated in the training.

They took classes in rescue techniques on various types of terrain and in the water. They also trained in incident command management, field medicine, and other subjects. The course was meant to teach participants to understand the importance of teamwork and personal safety and to develop the ability to conduct missing person searches in critical situations and to be able to identify, recognize, and manage risks when carrying out a rescue.

“We don’t know what might happen. It could be any emergency – from a drowning to someone falling off a cliff. To respond to such cases, Panama and the other countries deserve to have a team in place that can help them at any moment,” said Captain Joshua Valenzuela, supervisor and training coordinator for the CBP’s search and rescue program. He noted that this experience working with SENAFRONT instructors had been a positive one because “they took charge and did quite well in the training process.”

The first part of the training series was taught in SENAFRONT classrooms where the attendees learned the techniques of vertical and aquatic rescue and first aid. Afterward, they went to military training camps to recap and improve upon their knowledge, in order to put it into practice later. This training phase was conducted in the province of Chiriquí, in a jungle area along the border between Panama and Costa Rica.


Capt. Valenzuela explained that the area where these practice scenarios were staged is similar to the border zones in the region. This enabled participants to acquire new knowledge and to learn techniques for responding to potential emergencies in different theaters of operation. This type of instruction makes it possible for the military units of partner nations to acquire skills that will enable them to work in a coordinated way, especially in emergency situations and during natural disasters, in the event that additional personnel is needed.

The safety of search and rescue operations is closely monitored and corrected by the instructors, as it is crucial for mission success. (Photo: SENAFRONT)

“It [the course] is most important because they work in very inhospitable areas with mountains, jungle, and rushing rivers. Thanks to this training, they will have the skills to save their servicemen or civilians who are in our area of operation,” said Sergeant Danys Nieto, a Special Forces instructor at SENAFRONT.

Experiences lived

On July 15, 2015, four members of the Colombian Army fell over a cliff while on patrol in an area bordering Panama in the Darién jungle. Units from SENAFRONT’s Special Forces Group arrived on scene to provide support in the rescue efforts.

“It was quite difficult but since we had the training and the physical and mental stamina for it, we were able to carry out the rescue successfully,” Sgt. Nieto recounted. “The rescue efforts took approximately six hours. Thanks to God and to help from my colleagues, we rescued the soldiers,” he said. “The Colombian service members survived the incident thanks to that joint effort and our SAR course instruction,” Sgt. Nieto concluded.

In summer 2016 SENAFRONT units were met by a surprising number of people emerging from jungle paths in their attempt to get from South America to the United States. Authorities estimate that 20,000 people passed through the area that year. “Immigrants crossed the jungle by foot, without the training or physical stamina needed for the journey. Entire families were coming with children,” Commissioner Cristian Hayer, SENAFRONT’s director, told Diálogo.

From the stories told to them by those who had just arrived, authorities learned that a large number of people were left on footpaths in the jungle. The units went into the jungle to do patrols and provide aid to whoever had been left on the path. Those rescued were taken to shelters where they were given humanitarian aid and provided assistance completing the paperwork that would allow them to continue on their way.

“In order to resolve that kind of unforeseen circumstance, it is important to provide ongoing training to the personnel of this institution and to be able to train other entities, both domestic and foreign, on the skills we need to be prepared for a search and rescue event to save human lives,” Hayer concluded.

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