In early November, naval units of Latin America will head back home after a two-month training event with the Panamanian Air and Naval Service (SENAN, in Spanish) specialized in sea patrol and interdiction operations with a focus on organized crime. The International Interceptor Boat Operator Course (OBE, in Spanish), held September 3rd-November 1st at SENAN’s Naval Training School, includes units of the Panamanian National Border Service and elements of the Ecuadorian, Honduran, and Costa Rican navies and coast guards.
The course seeks to strengthen knowledge of interceptor boat operators who fight narcotrafficking and related crimes and face danger at sea, because of the different characteristics of bodies of water and criminal activities. The theoretical and hands-on course also helps level the capabilities of boat operators in the region and strengthen bonds of friendship among partner nations.
“This training stems from service needs due to the many interdiction and boarding operations in coastal areas,” SENAN Captain Walter Hernández Villalba, commandant of the Naval Training School, told Diálogo. “We must have highly trained personnel to conduct interdictions in waters that can suddenly become hostile for vessels and for our personnel. The creation of a program with a curriculum that provides the units we train with knowledge to better perform out there at sea was necessary.”
Classroom lessons focus on three areas: naval sciences, legal sciences, and human rights. During the hands-on training, participants put to the test everything they learned.
“The operator should have the skills to intercept and reach a vessel, keeping in mind boarding and crew security,” Capt. Hernández said. “They should know how to ride waves to get near the vessel, how to land on a beach, and how to leave a beach to embark or offload personnel.”
On the initial naval sciences phase, participants review basic knowledge such as navigation techniques, boat engine operation and maintenance, meteorology and organization, and unit command, among other topics. In the legal sciences portion, participants learn about international law and rules of navigation in international waters, maritime traffic regulations, security of navigational routes, and control and prevention of illegal activities.
With regard to human rights, students learn about the use of force and firearms. Participants study the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international law, and international rights accords.
“We learn new things and can standardize our knowledge,” Costa Rican National Coast Guard Service agent Mauricio Murillo told Diálogo. “It enables us to conduct better combined operations. We always meet at sea [with SENAN units], especially at the southern border, where we carry out some combined operations with Panama.”
During the hands-on training, students refine skills in simulated interdiction and boarding operations, high-speed maneuvers, and beach landing. Participants also conduct a 24-hour survival exercise at sea, simulating an emergency situation where units use rafts and swim against the current to return to shore.
“So far, I learned many tips about what to do in case of an emergency, which is very useful,” said Ecuadorean Marine Corps Corporal Richard Morales Lara. “I am really proud of learning more about the experiences they have here. Instructors are very good.”
Highly qualified people
The course, in its eighth edition, has 10 SENAN instructors backed with trainers from other institutions, such as the Panamanian Fire Department. Certified by the International Maritime Organization, the instructors receive part of their training to teach the course through knowledge exchanges with the Colombian Navy. They also train at U.S. Special Operations Command’s Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School in Mississippi.
“I like sharing my experiences,” said SENAN Sergeant José Saldaña, an instructor specialized in engines. “Boat operators will be dealing with engines, so they have to solve any potential issues in high seas. The sea is a complex environment; you have to deal with storms, choppy waters, and conditions that need a lot of training.”
SENAN’s Naval Training School carries out the OBE course yearly since its inception in 2011. The school offers other international courses, such as the Engineer Training Course and the Patrol Commander Course, recently made available to officers of the region.
“Institutions need highly qualified people to operate vessels at high speeds. This is very important, because a lot of skills are necessary to avoid a suspicious vessel or make them stop,” Capt. Hernández said. “Everything related to maritime security operations to counter organized crime is of a combat nature.”