Cablegate: Panama: Dealing with the Darien


DE RUEHZP #0872/01 3222259
R 172259Z NOV 08

S E C R E T PANAMA 000872



E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/07/2018

REF: A. A:PANAMA 00650
B. B:PANAMA 00725

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


1. (S//NF) The Darien, Panama's forgotten frontier, is
under pressure from drug traffickers and remnants of the
FARC. The FARC do not present a serious military threat to
Panama or Colombia, but they do threaten to degenerate into
banditry, as the organization implodes. While the U.S. is
helping to strengthen Panama's security forces on the border,
it will be some time before they are strong enough to
militarily confront the FARC. There is an extensive law
enforcement investigation underway against the FARC
logistical infrastructure in Panama, that may deal a stronger
blow than any military blow could. Meanwhile the FARC and the
drug dealers pose a threat to the indigenous communities, as
drugs and guns flood in, alienating the local population.
Post believes the best way to limit the ability of all
illegal groups to operate in the Darien is reinforce the
negative reaction local groups have to the illegal groups by
assisting the GOP to effectively govern the Darien, following
on the successful experience of the Government of Colombia in
the Social Recovery of Territory. End Summary.

Panama's Step-Daughter Under Pressure

2. (C) The Darien region of Panama is a forgotten corner of
the country that few Panamanians know, travel to, or care
about. Dominated by thick forest and criss-crossed by major
rivers, it is the ultimate frontier for Panamanians. The most
famous thing about the Darien is what there is not - a
continuation of the Pan-American Highway (the Darien Gap).
Its very underdevelopment has long been seen by Panamanians
as an effective barrier against Colombia's political and drug
violence. As a result, it has never received significant
public or private investment. There are schools or health
clinics in the Darien, and even fewer roads. Most
transportation is by foot or by boat, making it very
difficult to move people or goods (licit or illicit). The
population of the Darien is less than 50,000, grouped in
three main types of population centers: the mestizo
agricultural communities, concentrated along the one main
road; the mestizo and Afro-Panamanian fishing communities,
grouped in water-side communities; and traditional
Embera-Wounaan Indian communities, grouped in two separate
semi-autonomous "comarcas", one to the north of the
Pan-American Highway (Cemaco), and one to the south (Sambu).
Abandoned by the central government for the last 100 years,
the people of the Darien have largely ignored the central
government in response, being more or less content to scratch
out a meager living from the land and the water. This status
quo has been challenged lately by two factors: an increased
interest on the part of the GOP in exploiting the economic
potential of the Darien, and the increased presence in the
Darien of drug traffickers and members of illegal armed
groups, especially the FARC.

No Eight Foot Giant

3. (S//NF) Post believes that there are at any given time
between 200-600 members of the FARC in the Darien. Reports
from indigenous leaders indicate that they are concentrated
in two river valleys near the border, and far away from any
population centers. These camps are R&R points, where FARC
fighters retreat to when things in Colombia get too "hot."
Unofficial reports from U.S. military personnel who have
close contact with Panamanian Frontier Forces in the Darien
indicate that the FARC fighters are arriving over the border
in deplorable condition, without adequate equipment, and
ill-nourished. Recent FARC activities in the Darien have
included the repeated holding up of a small bodega in the
tiny town of Bajo Chiquito, apparently because the FARC do
not have money to pay for supplies, as they traditionally
have done (see reftel a). It is Post's view that the FARC
fighters in the Darien are an increasingly rag-tag group,
without effective leadership, communications, or logistical
support. The Darien is less a secure base for them as it is
a log a drowning man grabs onto for dear life. As such, the
FARC camps in Panama do not represent a strategic threat to
Colombia. Rather, these groups represent a growing threat to
Panama, as the FARC disintegrates into criminal bands. This
is the threat the GOP had in mind when they reformed the
police to create a separate Frontier Police Service
(SENAFRONT) (see reftel b).

US Help In the Darien

4. (S//NF) It is also Post's view that SENAFRONT does not
yet have the capacity to confront the experienced FARC
fighters without significant risk of defeat. SENAFRONT
theoretically has 2,000 men under its control, but many of
them have been pulled away from the frontier in recent months
to augment the undermanned Panamanian National Police (PNP)
in Panama City and other population centers, in an attempt to
control a crime wave that has caused social alarm. This
constant cannibalizing of the Frontier Forces was a major
justification for creating a separate force -- SENAFRONT --
which could concentrate on the Darien. But SENAFRONT still
needs to be organized, trained, properly equipped, and to
incorporate more manpower before it can be expected to
provide any greater capacity than at present. While Post's
ODC and NAS are working on training and equipping this force,
it will take time before their efforts bear serious results.
ODC has a 12 soldier strong Joint Planning and Assistance
Team (JPAT), which trains SENAFRONT on basic logistics,
maintenance, combat life saver, and light infantry tactics in
training areas near Panama City, and then takes "technical
assistance visits" to Meteti, in the near part of the Darien,
to observe their trainees in action. A 10-man SEAL team works
with a smaller group from SENAFRONT on advanced Counter-Narco
Terrorism training. ODC is also working on equipping
SENAFRONT with some trucks, boats, communications equipment
and night vision kits, as well as building barracks. NAS,
accompanied by ODC, recently took the commander of the
SENAFRONT, Commissioner Frank Abrego, to Colombia to meet the
leadership of the Colombian National Police, who promised up
to 60 training slots for SENAFRONT in their Jungle Training
School. The trip helped forge connections between the
Colombians and the Panamanians which Post hopes will lead to
fruitful cooperation in the future.

Red Lines

5. (S//NF) Even when all this training and equipping is
finished, the GOP will be reluctant to confront the FARC
directly. While the GOP realize they must begin to exert
greater sovereignty over their border in order to control the
FARC as it disintegrates, the Minister of Government and
Justice has told us that he plans to use SENAFRONT to reduce
the FARC's operating room in Panama little by little until it
is essentially pushed out of Panama and back into Colombia,
without having to confront it directly. In this process, the
GOP has clearly rejected USG offers to directly assist it in
the Darien. Current GOP policy refuses to allow U.S. military
personnel to train Panamanian forces in the Darien, though
the "technical assistance visits" mentioned above are
allowed. The GOP is reviewing our diplomatic notes on
upcoming training very closely to make sure we are not trying
to bend the rules. The GOP also rejected a recent DEA offer
to fly a FAST team in to the Darien to provide helicopter
coverage for anti-drug operations. It seems the GOP is
worried that U.S. forces might be wounded or kidnapped by the
FARC, or might militarily engage with the FARC on their own
authority. Should any of these scenarios play out, the GOP
would lose by being forced into a major confrontation for
which it is not prepared, and in the process drawing
attention to the presence of the FARC, which would be bad for
business in bustling, thriving Panama City.

Judicializing the Fight

6. (S//NF) There is a second more serious FARC presence in
Panama. The 57th Front, based on the Colombian side of the
border, is a logistical Front that runs a drug and arms
trafficking operation that helps to supply FARC forces in
western Colombia. This Front has a strong presence in Panama
City, smuggling routes throughout Panama, and a permanent
presence in the Darien. DEA and the U.S. Attorney's Office
for the Southern District of New York are running a complex
investigation of this group, based on a very sensitive
judicialized wire-tap program (called "Matador"), funded by
NAS. Post hopes this investigation will lead to a decisive
judicial blow against the 57th Front later in the year,
though serious obstacles to taking down or arresting the ring
leaders are still to be overcome. This would greatly weaken
the FARC in Panama and Colombia. Matador represents an
extraordinary level of cooperation from the GOP, who are
essentially allowing the USG to run phone taps on Panamanian
phones. The GOP has done an excellent job of using the
information picked up by Matador to capture drug shipments
without revealing where the information is coming from, thus
allowing us to deal powerful blows to drug traffickers, while
maintaining our overall investigation of the FARC.
Information from Matador has allowed the USG to obtain
tremendous amounts of information on the 57th Front, other
drug trafficking organizations, and other high profile and
sensitive criminal investigations. Post considers defending
the Matador program, and the GOP goodwill which makes it
possible to be of paramount importance, even at the cost of
not pushing other issues such as direct U.S. action in the

Socio-Cultural Threat

7. (C) The FARC is a major drug trafficker in the Darien,
but not the most important. Many other Drug Trafficking
Organizations (DTOs) operate in the Darien. They tend to
bring drugs into the Darien by go-fast, and then transfer
them to land, either coming up the Pan-American Highway, or
taking them overland by paths cut through the jungle. The
traffickers are using the indigenous Embera-Wounaan, either
willingly or by force, to facilitate this trade. Some
organizations kidnap members of the Embera-Wounaan to guide
them, while others hire young people to work for them. This
is doing tremendous damage to the social fabric of the
indigenous comarcas, as the Grand Cacique (Chief) of the
Embera tribe, Betanio Chiquidama, told the Ambassador October
24. Chiquidama explained that Embera youth are being
recruited by drug traffickers to guide them and work for
them, and are being paid in weapons and drugs. They are also
being encouraged to form youth gangs to work for the
traffickers, which in turn challenges the traditional social
structure of the Embera-Wounaan. Chiquidama asked the
Ambassador for help bringing the trafficking under control.
Post believes the position taken by the Embera leadership
gives us a major opportunity to increase cooperation and
coordination in the region on security and other issues, as
detailed below.

Drain the Water, Before They Learn to Swim

8. (C) The key limiting factor on FARC activity in the
Darien is the lack of a sympathetic local population.
Panamanians in general do not like Colombians, and there is
no local sympathy for the FARC in the Darien. While some
villages may engage in low-level commerce with FARC elements,
it is on a strictly pay-as-you-go basis. The recent FARC
incursion into Bajo Chiquito to steal goods from a local
store (see reftel a) led the locals to call in SENAFRONT.
This lack of local support for the FARC or other Colombian
groups gives Panama a major advantage as it struggles to
respond to the threat the potential disintegration of the
FARC represents. But given the lack of effective governance
on the ground in the Darien, the central government has few
options to respond should the situation take a turn for the

Colombian Model

9. (C) Post believes that the Colombian experience with the
"Social Recovery of Territory (SRT)," as coordinated by the
Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI)
within the Office of the President of Colombia, offers an
excellent example of what the way forward should look like.
The extension of effective Panamanian sovereignty over the
Darien requires a holistic approach, and not just a military
approach. The real threat in the Darien is the potential
disaffection of the local population, which might turn the
latent military threat of the rag-tag FARC elements into a
genuine problem. Bringing effective government to the people
of the Darien is the best way to prevent that. In analyzing
the Colombian experience with SRT, Post believes that there
are valuable lessons for Panama. The Government of Colombia
(GOC) has stressed the need to provide local security and
rule of law, by bringing local police, judges and prosecutors
to remote regions. Cacique Chiqidama specifically complained
to the Ambassador that SENAFRONT does not enter the
semi-autonomous indigenous Comarcas where most of the
Embera-Wounaan live, instead remaining in their base in
Meteti or patrolling the highway. They are thus not seen as
providing protection to the local population, or helping them
protect their children from the threat of co-optation by
armed groups. Post has proposed organizing a meeting between
Commissioner Abrego of SENAFRONT and the Embera leadership to
encourage joint patrols with local Embera volunteer community
police. Even relatively small moves to re-deploy SENAFRONT
forces to villages and towns could have a major effect on
local opinion, and provide the police with excellent sources
of intelligence. Commissioner Abrego and NAS Panama heard
over and over from Colombian police officials on their recent
visit to Colombia that community policing was the key to
Colombia's success. Post wants to use Merida funds to
encourage the Panamanian police to adopt community policing
in the Darien as well as in inner-city neighborhoods.

10. (C) Cacique Chiqidama also asked the Ambassador to help
convey the message to the GOP that the Embera want increased
coordination between the central government and their local
government, so that resources are aimed at the real problems
of the people. 27 of 28 Embera villages in Cemaco have do not
have easy access to fresh water. Relatively easy steps which
could eliminate bottle-necks to economic growth, like
improving access to markets for local bananas, have not been
taken. Again, this is a key element of the Colombian SRT
strategy, with all government agencies being coordinated by
the CCAI to help improve governance and service delivery in
marginal communities. Post will try to leverage our
Merida-funded Darien programs to convince the GOP to
establish a coordinating mechanism in the Darien which can
ensure that the voice of the people of the Darien is heard in
policy making.

Put Our Money Where Our Mouth Is?

11. (C) Realistically speaking, our call for coordinated
action in the Darien will be more readily heard if the USG
brings resources to bear on the issue. USAID has a proposal
for funding under 1207, if funds are available, for a local
government strengthening program in the Darien which would be
an excellent way to focus the GOP on the issue, and give the
USG a say in how the problems are addressed. Post will try to
use a forest management program that USAID has in the Darien
to promote this issue, but it is not clear how far that will
get us. USAID also plans to use some of the Merida Community
Action funds to work on gang prevention in the Darien, with
an eye towards promoting this overall strategy. Post will
also continue to work creatively with ODC to make maximum use
of its Humanitarian Assistance Program and Medical Readiness
Training exercises to promote greater government
coordination, and local development in the Darien. ODC
conducted the first Medical Readiness Training exercises in
the Darien in many years in May 2008, signaling a loosening
of the previous GOP policy to refuse all requests for U.S.
military deployments in the Darien.

Step-Daughter No More?

12. (C) This strategy will not work if there is not buy-in
from the GOP. This may now be possible because the GOP is
beginning to focus on the economic potential of the Darien.
During the Panamax exercise in August, PolOff was given a
briefing by a GOP official on the potential economic
development of the Darien, especially as an exporter of
organic beef and valuable timber. The briefer stressed the
relationship between the economic development plans in the
Darien and the security reforms. The clear impression was
that Panama needed to gain control of its territory to fully
exploit it. Post will stress to GOP counterparts that
effective governance, provision of basic services, and
community support are also keys for the success of any
attempt to promote economic development in the Darien. The
more legitimate activity there is in the Darien the less room
there will be for illegal activities, and the more support
there will be for a strong, integrated police presence. This
is the best path forward to bring the Darien into Panama's
social structure, and to push out the FARC and other armed

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