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Cablegate: Panama: Security Laws Continue to Generate Intense

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DE RUEHZP #0789/01 2801305
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R 061305Z OCT 08
FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 2563
INFO RUEHBO/AMEMBASSY BOGOTA 2706
RUEHGT/AMEMBASSY GUATEMALA 0755
RUEHMU/AMEMBASSY MANAGUA 0623
RUEHME/AMEMBASSY MEXICO 3754
RUEHSJ/AMEMBASSY SAN JOSE 1940
RUEHSN/AMEMBASSY SAN SALVADOR 1499
RUEHTG/AMEMBASSY TEGUCIGALPA 0414
RHEFHLC/HOMELAND SECURITY CENTER WASHINGTON DC
RHMFISS/DEPT OF JUSTICE WASHINGTON DC
RUCNFB/FBI WASHINGTON DC
RHMFISS/DEPT OF HOMELAND SECURITY WASHINGTON DC
RUEABND/DEA WASHDC
RHMFISS/US CUSTOMS AND BORDER PRO WASHINGTON DC
RHMFISS/COMDT COGARD WASHINGTON DC
RHMFISS/DIRJIATF SOUTH
RHMFISS/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC
RHMFISS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC
RHEHAAA/NSC WASHDC
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC

C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 000789

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/30/2018
TAGS: PGOV PREL PM
SUBJECT: PANAMA: SECURITY LAWS CONTINUE TO GENERATE INTENSE
POLITICAL DEBATE

REF: PANAMA 00725

Classified By: Ambassador Barbara J. Stephenson for reasons
1.4 (b) and (d)

-------
Summary
-------

1. (C) Over a month after President Martin Torrijos issued
five decrees that reformed the Panamanian security services
(see reftel), the security sector reform debate continues to
occupy newspaper headlines and op-eds. The stage is now set
for the laws, and the U.S.-Panamanian security relationship,
to become major campaign issues leading up to the May, 2009
elections. The two lines of argument that have now developed
were on display at a recent debate at the American Chamber of
Commerce. Ebrahim Asvat, president of Panama City broadsheet
daily La Estrella, argued that the security laws were an
attempt to impose a USG dictated militarized anti-drug
policy, as part of what he called the failed war on drugs. He
said the reforms aimed to improve Panama's ability to stop
drug trafficking to the U.S., at the expense of inner-city
policing needed to address Panama's own crime problem. Jaime
Abad, a former head of the Judicial Investigative Police
(PTJ) and a consultant on the reform laws, argued that Panama
faced a dire security situation due to the threats posed by
international drug traffickers, and potential international
terrorists - particularly to "U.S. nuclear armed submarines."
Separately, the leading group in the campaign against the new
laws, the Democratic Citizen's Network (RDC), challenged all
the presidential candidates to sign a pledge to repeal the
laws, if elected. The three opposition presidential
candidates - Guillermo Endara, Juan Carlos Varela and Ricardo
Martinelli - promptly signed the pledge. Balbina Herrera, the
Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidate, refused to
sign, saying she would only reform one of the laws. End
Summary.

----------------------------
Laws Continue to Spur Debate
----------------------------

2. (C) Over a month after Panamanian President Martin
Torrijos issued five executive decrees that reformed the
Panamanian security forces (reftel), the debate over the laws
continues to dominate Panamanian politics. Daily, Panama's
leading newspapers' op-ed pages run pieces attacking the
laws. These pieces are influential because many radio and
television commentators share the print media's op-eds with
their audiences, and then add their commentaries on the
issues they discuss. Many of these articles focus on the
perceived U.S. role in sponsoring the laws as part of a
perceived USG interest in re-militarizing Panama as part of
the Merida Initiative, while almost nothing is being written
in favor of the laws. At the same time, supporters and
opponents of the laws are debating them before influential
civic groups in an attempt to gain the support of critical
opinion makers. POLOFF attended one such debate on September
26 at the American Chamber of Commerce in Panama. Ebrahim
Asvat argued in favor of repealing the laws, while Jaime Abad
defended them. Asvat, a lawyer and former Torrijos
Administration Secretary of Presidential Goals, has taken a
strong editorial line against the security reforms as
president of the politically influential daily La Estrella.
Abad, who was imprisoned and tortured under the Noriega
regime, is also a lawyer and served as the head of the
Judicial Investigative Police from 1990 to 1994. He worked
for the GOP as a consultant on the security laws, and has
spoken many times in their defense.

--------------------------------------------- ------------
If All You Have Is a Hammer, Then Every Problem is a Nail
--------------------------------------------- ------------

3. (C) Asvat told the assembled U.S. business
representatives that the security reform laws were passed as
part of an initiative by the GOP to militarize the security
structures in order to combat international drug trafficking,
at the behest of the USG. He said the Pentagon had been
helping regional militaries to improve their training and
equipment to more effectively fight drug trafficking to the
U.S., but noted that the Pentagon lacked a natural partner in
Panama due to the civilian nature of its security structures.
He said the GOP had passed the security laws to make it
easier for the Pentagon to work with the new frontier forces
(SENAFRONT) and the new aero-naval service (SENAN) on
anti-drug trafficking missions. Asvat said the laws
undermined civilian control of the security services, which
were a hard won achievement after 21 years of dictatorship,
to serve the needs of the U.S. and to confront a drug
trafficking problem that, while a serious problem, was not
Panama's biggest security problem. He said Panama's real
crime problem, growing inner-city violent crime and gang
activity, had nothing to do with Coast Guards and Frontier
Forces, and that the creation of these forces would draw
resources away from the Panamanian National Police (PNP), who
are responsible for fighting crime in the cities. He insisted
that the U.S. led war on drugs had been a total failure, and
that Panama should not risk its democracy or its security
following the U.S. into a dead end. He called for a law
enforcement strategy based more on prevention and social work
than on "repression."

--------------------------------------
We Have Plenty of Nails, and No Hammer
--------------------------------------

4. (C) Abad challenged Asvat's argument that drug
trafficking was not Panama's main crime problem. Using slides
obtained from SouthCom/JIATF-S showing drug trafficking
flows, Abad showed how Panama was at the center of many of
the main drug trafficking routes. He said that major drug
seizures in Panama showed that drug trafficking was
increasing, and said that the drugs were increasingly
penetrating Panamanian society as well, fueling the gang
activity and violent crime. He then pointed to the danger of
terrorist activity, specifically a potential attack against a
"nuclear-armed U.S. submarine" transiting the Canal. Finally,
Abad emphasized the huge amount of sea space Panama was
responsible for patrolling. He implied several times that if
Panama did not undertake to fulfill its international
obligations to protect the Canal and its territorial waters,
"others" (read: the U.S.) might do it. Abad argued that the
Panamanian security services were not adequately trained or
equipped to confront these challenges now, and that the
reforms have long been necessary give the security apparatus
the ability to meet their obligations. He noted there had
been broad agreement on the need for similar reforms in 2000,
under the government of Mireya Moscoso. Citing his own past
as a victim of human rights abuses, Abad insisted that the
reforms were not part of a "plot" to re-militarize Panama
under the influence of former officers of the former
Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), many of whom are now in
positions of power in the GOP, including most prominently
these days Minister of Government and Justice Daniel Delgado
Diamante. Abad said it was not right to continue to look at
these people with suspicion because of their associations in
the past. He added that while prevention was important, some
people were bad, and society had to be protected from them.

-------------------------
RDC Challenges Candidates
-------------------------

5. (C) In the streets of Panama, opposition to the laws has
been championed by the Democratic Citizen's Network (RDC).
This new civic group has held weekly vigils in front of the
Iglesia del Carmen church in central Panama City (site of
similar "civil crusade" vigils during the Noriega regime),
and also marched to the National Assembly (NA) several times
to demand the NA repeal or modify the laws (Note: The NA has
the right to modify or repeal the laws. As of now no action
has been taken, though several opposition Deputies plan to
push for action this week. No serious changes to the laws are
expected. End Note). Last week, the RDC invited all the
presidential candidates to sign a letter, which the
organization had deposited in the office of the Ombudsman,
promising to repeal the laws, if elected. All three
opposition candidates for president - Guillermo Endara,
Ricardo Martinelli, and Juan Carlos Varela - have now signed
the letter, placing the future of the new institutions in
doubt. PRD presidential candidate Balbina Herrera refused to
sign the document, saying she would only revise the law which
created the National Intelligence and Security Service
(SENIS) to guarantee its activities were "transparent", so
nobody believed it was persecuting politicians. Mauro Zuniga,
the head of the RDC, was quoted in the papers on September 29
saying that by refusing to sign the letter Balbina "admits
her intention to re-militarize the country, revive the G-2
(Note: Noriega era intelligence service responsible for many
human rights violations. End Note), and return to the 'death
squads.'"

---------------
Campaign Issue?
---------------

6. (C) Panamanista presidential candidate Juan Carlos
Varela put the security laws at the center of his campaign at
a political event on September 22, when he strongly condemned
the government for attempting to impose a "civil
dictatorship." His promise to repeal the security laws got
the loudest ovation by far from a room packed with the
leaders of all the factions of the Panamanista party, and the
recently allied MOLERENA party. A recent poll by Unimer,
published in Panama City's La Prensa daily newspaper,
reported that 38.1% of respondents were worried about the new
laws, and feared they would lead to a re-militarization of
the country, while 40.3% thought they would lead to an
improvement in security.

-------
Comment
-------

7. (C) The dogged efforts of the major newspapers and the
RDC are succeeding in giving the debate over the security
laws a political character. The secret to their success is
the genuine nervousness many Panamanians feel about the new
laws, especially among members of civic organizations, the
business community, and the political opposition who suffered
under the Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega dictatorships. It
now seems quite possible that these groups will succeed in
making this a political issue in the elections, whether the
candidates want it to be or not. Where many of the op-ed
pieces up to now have been written by members of the
Panamanista's small nationalist/leftist faction (the MAPA),
we are now seeing alarmist articles from thoughtful and
respected political leaders. Unfortunately, this debate tends
to place our security relationship with Panama out in the
open - from HVT transits of the Canal, to counter-drug
cooperation - and potentially subject it to political attack
as the campaign heats up. At this time opponents of the laws
are looking for any evidence of U.S. "complicity" with the
crafting of the laws. We are making some small headway in
shifting this debate away from the U.S. by highlighting the
Embassy's support for law enforcement solutions to law
enforcement problems in general, and specific support for
community policing. Merida funding for additional prevention
and community action efforts should help us reframe our role
in the eyes of the Panamanian public.

STEPHENSON

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
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