Cablegate: Panamanian Security Cooperation: Irreplaceable?


DE RUEHZP #0704/01 2391750
R 261750Z AUG 08

S E C R E T PANAMA 000704


E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/22/2018

C. REF C:PANAMA07 00940

Classified By: Ambassador Barbara Stephenson for Reason 1.4 (d)


1. (S/NF) Panama is one of the USG's most important law
enforcement and security partners in the Western Hemisphere.
Its importance is based on a combination of its strategic
location astride one of the world's most important lines of
communication, an enormous Panamanian flagged shipping fleet,
and the willingness of the Government of Panama (GOP) to
cooperate with various USG agencies. The fact that this
cooperation is dispersed among many different agencies makes
it difficult to understand the critical nature of our
partnership with Panama. Panamanian cooperation allows the
USG to: search Panamanian flagged ships in international
waters, listen to the phone calls of drug dealers and FARC
Fronts, make direct drug seizures, fly counter drug missions
over Panama's strategic waters, and conduct the annual
Panamax military exercise, SouthCom's largest and most
important security cooperation event in the region.

2. (S/NF) Panama's help is much more critical to us than it
is to Panama. Because the scope of this cooperation is not
fully visible, it risks being inadequately appreciated by
even the most seasoned experts in Panama and the U.S. The
counter-drug missions the GOP helps us with are not seen as a
priority among Panamanians, who see them as an American
affair, diverting resources from their own problems. The US
must remain engaged in Panama's law enforcement and security
efforts to maintain our critical cooperation across the
board, and to obtain the even better results which are within
reach. This cable seeks to inform Washington Panama watchers
and other stakeholders regarding the importance and value of
our extensive cooperation in law enforcement and security
matters. The nature of our programs essentially extends our
homeland security out from the U.S. border to Panama's. End

Direct Seizure Rate

3. (S/NF) Panama has seized over 30 tons of cocaine in the
first eight months of 2008, following seizure of almost 60
tons last year. This represents the highest seizure rate in
the world by far. Panama is an important transshipment point
for cocaine heading to the US and Europe by sea, and land.
(Note: Due to Colombian Government efforts, there is very
little drug trafficking through Panama by air at this time.
End Note) Drug traffickers use go-fast boats to make short
hauls along the coast, working their way up through Central
America to Mexico, or take advantage of the Pan-American
Highway to ship drugs north. Almost all seizures have been
the result of information obtained through the Matador
intercept program (see below para 7), or U.S. intelligence
passed to the Panamanians. Almost all seizures are carried
out by a small number of specialized units, including the
Sensitive Investigations Unit (SIU) and the Panamanian
National Police's (PNP) Reverine Patrol and Action Unit

Special Units

4. (S/NF) Panama's Sensitive Investigations Unit is
composed of 40 officers from the Panamanian Anti-Drug
Prosecutor's Office and the PNP. Their main task is to
further major, multi-lateral narcotics investigations in
coordination with international law enforcement partners.
They are vetted through background checks and polygraphs, and
receive extensive USG training and resources, provided
primarily by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the
Embassy's Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS), including salary
bonuses. They use a "task force" approach, sharing leads and
intelligence on a regular basis and in an effective fashion.
DHS' Immigration and Custom's Enforcement (ICE) recently
established its own vetted unit (staffed by ICE-vetted PNP
officials), and that has already produced its own successes.

5. (S/NF) The UMOF was established to patrol the rivers of
Panama's almost impenetrable Darien Province, where rivers
serve as roads. The unit has proven to be highly competent
and aggressive, and has made excellent use of NAS-provided
equipment, including two Donzi go-fast boats, to seize large
amounts of cocaine, including out at sea. The unit is a sign
of how effective resources given to the GOP can be in leading
directly to important drug seizures.

Problems at Sea

6. (S/NF) The UMOF's success only highlights one of the
major problem areas Post has encountered in Panama, the
ineffectiveness of the Panamanian National Maritime Service
(SMN). U.S. aircraft have identified the maritime drug
trafficking routes along Panama's coasts, but the SMN has
been ineffective at intercepting the go-fast boasts that
carry out this activity, despite over $12 million in U.S.
assistance, including two Donzi go-fast boats and four
Nortech interceptor boats. The SMN continues to suffer from
poor leadership and is likely plagued by internal corruption.
While it plays a major role in certain activities of
importance to the U.S. (prisoner transfers, High Value
Transits of the Canal, Panamax), the SMN has failed
demonstrably in recent years to effectively act upon maritime
counter-narcotics leads provided by the USG. While
frustrating for the agencies involved, it also demonstrates
that Panama could be seizing even more cocaine and disrupting
drug smuggling routes if a way can be found to engage with
the GOP as it attempts to reform the SMN as part of its
planned creation of a National Aero-Naval Service SENAN)
(Panamanian Coast Guard) as part of its planned security


7. (S/NF) Post's NAS and DEA offices have developed an
extraordinarily successful Judicialized Telephone Intercept
Program ("Matador") in cooperation with the Panamanian
Anti-Drug Prosecutor's office, the Council of Public Security
and National Defense (CSPDN), and the Panamanian Supreme
Court. This extremely sensitive program, similar to U.S.
Title III programs, continues to develop real-time leads in
the fight against organized drug trafficking, and in
particular the illicit activities of the FARC. The
intercepts are also being used by the FBI to investigate the
involvement of the FARC in the kidnapping of AmCit Celio Juan
Padron in April 2008. The intercepts have allowed DEA to
develop an intricate understanding of the FARC presence and
activities in Panama, and to prepare a criminal case against
them. Major indictments against the FARC in these two cases
are expected in the coming months based on evidence obtained
through Matador. At present, close to 200 dirty cellular
lines are "intervened", each one following approval by the
Criminal Chamber of the Panamanian Supreme Court of a request
from the Panamanian Anti-Drug Prosecutor's Office. U.S. and
Panamanian law enforcement agencies expect a regular stream
of arrests and subsequent indictments from these efforts, as
information obtained via Matador is valid in U.S. federal
courts, as well as in local Panamanian courts. The success
of the program stems from excellent cooperation among the
Panamanian Supreme Court, the CSPDN, the Prosecutor's office,
and vetted elements of the Panamanian National Police (PNP).
Matador has benefited from DEA expertise and training, and
has counted on financial backing from NAS (over $1 million),
DEA, and the Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC) at Post.

8. (S/NF) While the GOP readily admits to Embassy contacts
that there is a small regular FARC presence in the thickly
forested and largely ungoverned Darien Province, GOP
officials shy away from talking about any FARC presence in
Panama publicly. Rather than use the terms "FARC" or
"terrorist," the GOP prefers "criminal elements" or "criminal
organizations," in keeping with their view that, as the FARC
comes under increasing pressure, a breakdown in central
command is manifesting itself in a rise in undisciplined
criminal actions. The GOP's historical position has been
that of "live and let live", whereby FARC units keep a low
profile, do not disturb Panamanians, and do not engage in
serious crime against Panamanians (kidnapping, murder), and
in turn they will not be disturbed by Panamanian forces. The
FARC presence in the Darien is not very large, but it now
appears likely that there is also a significant logistical
operation based in Panama City. The Panamanian authorities do
not have the capability to uproot the FARC presence from the
Darien or other parts of Panama at this time, and this has
been one of the reasons they have given in private for the
need to create a new stand alone Frontier Force (SENAFRONT)
(see Ref E). The FARC is not a major concern of the
Panamanian people, however, who see the Darien as very
remote, and are more focused on the day-to-day crime in their
neighborhoods. There is little political gain in taking on
the FARC publicly, and much to be lost. GOP may fear an
aggressive campaign against the FARC could lead to a showdown
in the Darien to which the GOP would, with current forces,

Salas-Becker Agreement

9. (S/NF) In February 2002, the U.S. and Panama signed the
Salas-Becker Agreement (SBA). This agreement remains one of
our most important drug fighting tools in the region. SBA has
three main components. Among other things, it allows the U.S.
Coast Guard (USCG) to patrol Panamanian waters with
Panamanian SMN officers aboard, to stop Panamanian registered
ships on the high seas (after a diplomatic protocol), and to
carry out drug interdiction flights over Panamanian waters
and land in Panamanian airports. It is an invaluable tool to
U.S. counter-narcotics efforts, and for that reason has faced
opposition by some in Panama. Panamanian National Assembly
President Pedro Miguel Gonzalez (presently under U.S. federal
indictment in connection with the 1992 murder of a U.S.
soldier) has threatened to challenge SBA in court, and some
Panamanians see it as aviolation of Panamanian sovereignty.
Nonetheless, the GOP has stood by the agreement, and, on
August 17, 4.2 tons of cocaine were seized on the Panamanian
flagged M/V Aganmenon 100 nautical miles south of Puerto
Rico, under the terms of the SBA.

Ship-Rider Program

10. (S/NF) One of the key aspects of SBA is the Ship-Rider
Program. This program allows Panamanian law enforcement
officers to serve as liaison officers aboard USCG cutters
that patrol in or near Panamanian territorial waters. These
officers are able to give orders to Panamanian vessels, and
request assistance from the crew of the USCG cutter. This
effectively turns the cutters into Panamanian vessels that
patrol Panamanian waters. The program has not been working as
effectively as previously because the SMN officers have not
been delegated the essential authority to take decisions on
their own, and must get clearance from their superiors.
Without these officers on board, however, it is not likely
that the GOP would be able to justify letting U.S. ships
patrol their waters. The GOP is also reluctant to allow
ship-riders on U.S. Navy vessels which are assigned to law
enforcement duties, preferring to put them on "civilian
vessels." The program can be improved, but given the amount
of narcotics trafficking going on in the territorial waters
of Panama, this is still an important tool for the USG.

Boarding of Panama Flagged Vessels

11. (S/NF) SBA also establishes a procedure by which the
USG can request from the GOP the right to board
Panamanian-flagged ships (one-third of all the ships in the
world are flagged in Panama) in international waters. If
drugs are found on-board, the GOP can cede jurisdiction of
the ship, drugs and crew to the USG, with the critical
exception of Panamanian citizens. To date all such requests
have been approved. While it is unclear whether Panama has
the legal right to cede jurisdiction over its citizens on the
open sea, the 2006 case of the M/V Perseus V, where eight
Panamanians were taken to the U.S. and tried and convicted
under SBA, has made it a political impossibility right now
(see Ref d). Also per Ref d, we have requested guidance from
the Department on how to respond to the GOP's Dip Note on the
status of the Panamanian sailors. The importance of the
Panamanian fleet makes SBA invaluable in attempts to
interdict drugs on the high seas, and Post is concerned this
case may make it more difficult for the GOP to fully
implement it.

12. (S/NF) Panama has also participated in the
Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a potentially
important tool in the bid to prevent WMD proliferation. To
date no request to board a Panamanian flagged ship has been
made under the PSI.

JIATF Tocumen Operations

13. (S/NF) The Joint Inter-Agency Task Force (JIATF) -
South operates P-3 aircraft out of Tocumen Airport in Panama
City under SBA. The planes are non-military, either USCG or
CBP, and must carry Panamanian law enforcement officials on
board, per SBA. SBA allows the planes to track traffic over
Panama and its waters, and to relay the orders of Panamanian
officials to suspect aircraft or seacraft. The planes may
operate out of Tocumen airport while conducting short joint
operations, normally lasting a week. The program has allowed
JIATF-South to map out the routes used by drug traffickers,
and to identify targets. This program also benefits the GOP,
whose National Air Service has only two functional
helicopters at this time. As noted above, the information
gathered has played a major role in seizures by the PNP and
the UMOF, along with seizures made in other countries. The
SMN has not been effective in using this information.


14. (S/NF) JIATF-South currently benefits from Panama,s
participation in the Cooperating Nations Information Exchange
System (CNIES) program. CNIES uses Re-locatable Over the
Horizon RADAR (ROTHR) feeds to detect air tracks as aircraft
transit into or through Panamanian airspace. The Panamanian
National Air Service (SAN) is very proficient and aggressive
in sorting such air tracks to determine if they are
legitimate or illicit airborne activities. The ROTHR feeds
are real-time and are viewed at both the SAN Operations
Center and JIATF-South Operations Center. In addition to
providing a common operating picture, CNIES provides on-line
chat (w /simultaneous translation) capability between JIATF-S
and all participating countries. This chat capability allows
for coordination and information sharing in real time.
Without the SAN's ability to weed out legitimate flights from
the raw radar information, JIATF-South would not be able to
act on the information. While airborne trafficking is not a
major issue right now due to aggressive actions by the
Colombian government, the capability to detect air traffic
through Central America is a very valuable asset, which may
become even more important in the future, as traffickers
change tactics to try to stay one step ahead of law
enforcement agencies.


15. (S/NF) Panama continues to co-host SouthCom's premier
event, "Fueras Aliadas PANAMAX." This Canal defense oriented
exercise has grown from three countries (Chile, Panama, and
the U.S.) in 2003, to over 20 countries this year. This
exercise has allowed the countries in the region who are
willing to join forces in the defense of the Canal to
practice their inter-operablity in real world naval exercises
where officers and vessels from all the participants work
together at every level to create a truly impressive model of
defense cooperation. Panama has now begun to integrate its
non-naval domestic security forces into the exercises by
practicing its response to lower level emergencies which
might precede a full scale international response. These
exercises known as Panamax Alpha, show Panama's resolve to
become a regional partner in the defense of the Canal, and
not just a passive observer.

Third Border

15. (S/NF) Panama is a choke point in the Americas, and
many travelers from South America must pass through Panama on
their way north. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is working to
build up Panama as a "third border", where people and goods
coming to the U.S. can be screened and, if necessary, stopped
before they reach the U.S. There are several programs that
fall into this category. NAS financed the construction of the
Guabala checkpoint about one mile from the Panama-Costa Rica
border crossing at a cost of almost $500,000. The post is
designed to stop illegal migrants, smugglers, and other
contraband before reaching to border, and so prevent passage
through Central America, and possibly to the U.S. DHS has
deployed Border Patrol agents on several occasions to provide
operational assistance to the Panamanian authorities, funded
by NAS. CBP is also working with the CSPDN and civil aviation
authorities to implement a the Advanced Passenger Information
System (APIS) in Panama, that would allow CBP to know who was
entering Panama, and prevent potential criminals or
terrorists from continuing on to the US. This project would
be funded under the Merida Initiative.


16. (S/NF) Panama is home to three of the most important
container ports in the Western Hemisphere, and the world's
second largest Free Trade Zone, in Colon. Many containers are
transferred in these ports for eventual shipment to U.S.
ports, making Panama a critical location for screening cargo
bound for the U.S. Panama has cooperated closely with ICE in
initiating a Container Security Initiative (CSI) in the three
major ports here. The CSI became operational in Panama in
September 2007, with a primary mission of deterring the entry
of WMD into the U.S. through containerized shipping. DHS has
installed two container scanners in Panamanian ports, and the
GOP is looking to purchase several more. ICE currently has
four CBP officers and one ICE agent stationed working with
the Panamanians on this.

Turning Over Bad Guys

17. (S/NF) Panama is one of the most obliging countries in
the region in terms of extraditing non Panamanian foreign
nationals. They not only have an Mutual Legal Assistance
Treaty (MLAT) with the U.S., which allows for a formal
extradition process, but have been willing to engage in other
more creative techniques. These have included: the direct
expulsion to the U.S. of people of interest to U.S. law
enforcement, under the pretext that they have lied on their
request for entry documents; and the use of Conditional
Release, under which the GOP releases to the U.S. a suspect
already under arrest in Panama on other charges. Under this
procedure, the suspect is "lent" to the U.S. for prosecution
on the condition that they will be returned for prosecution
in Panama at the end of their sentence. This procedure is
much faster than a formal extradition, and has proven so
successful, that DEA sometimes designs operations to bring
suspects to Panama so they can be arrested in Panama and
turned over to U.S. authorities quickly.

Panama Express

18. (S/NF) Panama Express refers to an agreement between
Panama and the U.S. whereby drug suspects caught by U.S.
ships in international waters can be brought to shore in
Panama for transshipment to the U.S. A similar agreement
exists with Guatemala. This agreement is critical to the work
of USG counter-narcotic operations which focus on stopping
drug shipments at sea. Suspects are allowed to "unofficially"
enter Panama, after which they are taken directly to a SAN
base, and then picked up by USG assets. Without this
agreement, USCG ships would need to go off station for long
periods of time, and burn large amounts of fuel in order to
bring the suspects to the U.S. The knowledge that these
suspects are going straight to the U.S. also increases their
disposition to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement

Police Cooperation

20. (S) The day-to-day cooperation of the PNP and other
local law enforcement with the FBI and other law enforcement
agencies in non-drug cases, such as the Padron kidnapping,
has been excellent. The only problem has been a failure to
adequately safeguard information from release in the press.

Other problems

21. (S/NF) The Panamanian security services are hobbled by
poor pay, poor organization, and poor coordination among
different agencies. Panamanian police are very poorly paid,
which invites corruption to take hold. NAS funds extra salary
payments for members of the Sensitive Investigative Unit in
an attempt to overcome this problem, and reinforce the
dedication of the officers. The plan referred to above to
create a separate Frontier Force is meant in part to overcome
the negative results of transferring police between urban
areas and the frontier, which has led to low morale and poor
service to citizens by police more accustomed to frontier
duty. There have also been major problem with the maintenance
of some equipment, including USG-donated boats.

Challenge of a new Judicial System

22. (S/NF) One other major potential problem on the horizon
is the adoption by Panama of a new accusatorial criminal
justice system (to be phased in over the next five years),
that will require major procedural reforms and require
extensive training for judges, prosecutors, and defense
lawyers. Panamanian Anti-Drug Prosecutor Jose Abel Almengor
told PolOff August 19 that nowhere near enough money was
being invested in this change, and that the result would be
catastrophic for drug prosecutions, as it would not be
possible to get judicial permission for searches fast enough,
and unprepared and underpaid judges would be subject to great
pressure to release suspects on bail, which they have not had
the power to do up to now. NAS isworking with the U.S.
Department of Justice to develop a training program for
Panamanian judges and prosecutors.


23. (S/NF) Very few of the programs listed above are
generally known to Panamanians. They are the result of
programs and relationships built up at a time when the USG
had great resources to spend in Panama. Now that Panama is
seen as a middle income country, they are being cut out of
the foreign assistance loop. The assumption is that they
should be able to pay for their own programs. What this cable
aims to show is that most of these programs serve our
interests more than Panamanian interests. Facing their own
worsening crime problems, the GOP will be under increasing
pressure to divert all law enforcement resources to fighting
street crime, which is creating social alarm. While the
street crime may be related to drug trafficking, it is not
particularly effected by drug busts of shipments headed to
the U.S. or abroad. In addition, with around 40% poverty and
the second most unequal income distribution in Latin American
(according to the U.N.) there is great pressure on the GOP to
spend money on social programs, thus reducing the amount
available for law enforcement. The small, effective anti-drug
units in the PNP are essentially working a USG agenda, and
need USG support. More such units, especially like the UMOF,
might be able to further build on the wealth of intelligence
that programs like JIATF-South's P-3 flights give us. The GOP
should invest more money in its own defense, and we encourage
them to do so. But given that our programs generally extend
homeland security out from the U.S. border to Panama's, we
should be realistic about the need to provide continued
funding if we hope to retain the robust cooperation we
currently enjoy.

24. (S/NF) This cable has avoided referring to any active
criminal investigations or to Compartmentalized Information.

© Scoop Media

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