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Cablegate: Panama: Gop Requests Colombian Helos to Help

VZCZCXYZ0000
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHZP #0917/01 3511244
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
O 161244Z DEC 08
FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 2719
INFO RUEHBO/AMEMBASSY BOGOTA IMMEDIATE 2721
RHMFISS/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL IMMEDIATE
RUEHSJ/AMEMBASSY SAN JOSE 1947
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC
RHMFISS/COMDT COGARD WASHINGTON DC
RHMFISS/DIRJIATF SOUTH
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC
RHMFISS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC
RHEHAAA/NSC WASHDC

S E C R E T PANAMA 000917

NOFORN
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/15/2018
TAGS: PGOV PREL MARR MASS PTER PBTS CO PM
SUBJECT: PANAMA: GOP REQUESTS COLOMBIAN HELOS TO HELP
CONTROL FARC INCURSIONS IN THE DARIEN

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

--------------------------------------------- --------------
1st VP/FM Expresses Concern to Ambassador, Seeks Assistance
--------------------------------------------- --------------

1. (S//NF) First VP and FM Samuel Lewis expressed his
concern over recent events in the Darien and requested U.S.
assistance addressing the FARC threat in this border region
that abuts Colombia, during a one-on-one meeting at his
private office on December 12. The December 11 firefight
between members of Panama's National Frontier Service
(SENAFRONT) and armed irregulars, apparently belonging to the
FARC, in the village of Menene near the Colombian border in
the Darien served as the impetus for this meeting. One man
was wounded and captured by the SENAFRONT officers in this
clash and is currently in Panama City undergoing medical
treatment and in police custody. Lewis noted the concern
among indigenous leaders in the area, following unconfirmed
reports of FARC activity in the Embera-Wounaan Sambu Comarca.
(Note: Embera Grand Cacique Betanio Chiquidama asserted to
POLOFF on December 12 that "armed irregulars" had forced the
residents of two villages to flee on December 12. The precise
nature of events to which the Grand Cacique as referring
remain unclear. End Note). Lewis asked the Ambassador for
night vision goggles (NVG) and USG support for a GOP request
to the Government of Colombia (GOC) for helicopters.
Ambassador urged the GOP to permit two-three members of the
U.S. Navy SEAL Counter Narco-Terrorism training team that is
presently in-country training SENAFRONT to deploy to
SENAFRONT's Headquarters in Meteti, Darien, to help plan and
direct SENAFRONT operations.

-------------------------------------------
Panama Seeks to Lease Colombian Helicopters
-------------------------------------------

2. (S//NF) According to Lewis, the GOP intends to ask the
GOC to lease it two-three Bell 212 helicopters, noting that
Panama had recently trained a group of pilots from the
National Aero-Naval Service (SENAN) to fly these aircraft. He
noted that the difficulty SENAFRONT had in getting
reinforcements to Menene, following reports that local
teachers had been taken captive by and forced to cook for
armed irregulars. Lewis noted that this situation had made
it clear to the GOP that they needed to provide SENAFRONT
with airlift capability immediately and could not wait for
the delivery of the five UH-1 "Huey" helicopters presently
being refurbished. Lewis asked that the USG weigh in with
the GOC in favor of this request. Anticipating that the GOC
might object on the grounds that such a lease would leave a
helicopter deficit for Colombian forces, Lewis requested that
the USG consider supplying Colombia with more helicopters to
"backfill" behind this request. Lewis noted that Panama could
not request the helicopters directly from the U.S. because
Panama would not allow U.S. pilots to fly in the Darien, for
fear of U.S. casualties, and the U.S. would not allow
Panamanian pilots to fly U.S. helicopters.

-----------------
Panama Seeks NVGs
-----------------

3. (S//NF) Lewis also asked for immediate delivery of night
vision goggles (NVGs) to allow SENAFRONT to operate more
effectively at night. Post's Office of Defense Cooperation
(ODC) sent a representative to SOUTHCOM who picked up 20 NVGs
that had been previously acquired for SENAFRONT and other
Panamanian security forces. When Ambassador reported that
ODC anticipated bringing NVGs to Panama on December 15,
Lewis said he was extremely pleased with the Embassy's and
SOUTHCOM's rapid response.

-------------------------------------------
Ambassador Urges GOP to Accept SEAL Support
-------------------------------------------

4. (S//NF) Ambassador reminded Lewis that ten-member U.S.
Navy SEAL Counter-Narco/Terrorism (CNT) training team was
presently in Panama (but not the Darien) training SENAFRONT.

She urged the GOP to permit two-three SEALs to deploy to the
SENAFRONT Headquarters in Meteti, Darien to help plan and
direct SENAFRONT missions in the Darien. (Note: ODC has
been in touch with SOUTHCOM and SOCSOUTH to coordinate this
prospective change to the CNT's mission as well as a the
deployment of two-three SEALs to Meteti.) Lewis, wary of the
offer, responded that President Torrijos did not want U.S.
military personnel in harm's way or directly involved in the
fighting. Ambassador underscored that these SEALs would
deploy solely in an advisory capacity well away from the
front lines, that this team would help SENAFRONT plan
successful operations, and that these experts would also help
avoid any situation that might lead to a tactical defeat for
SENAFRONT. Ambassador stressed that this small team was well
known to and had been working with SENAFRONT already. Lewis
agreed to present the offer to President Torrijos and report
back upon his return from Brazil on December 18.

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

5. (S//NF) The extent of and reasons behind the up-tick in
FARC activity in the Darien are unclear. When the story that
the Menene incident might be part of a larger incursion broke
in the media on December 14, the only official available to
be quoted by the Panamanian media was Colombian Defense
Minister Jose Manuel Santos, who claimed that the incidents
were part of a broad based retreat into Panama by scattered
and hungry elements of the 57th and 58th Fronts. The
situation on the ground remains confused, but the GOP seems
to have reluctantly come to the conclusion that it must take
action to assure the country that the situation is under
control. Post will continue to push the GOP to develope a
comprehensive strategy for dealing with the Darien, which
takes into account the legal framework in which SENAFRONT is
operating. We will hold off on offering any further material
assistance until we see signs of such a strategy, which would
allow the GOP to full take advantage of the assistance.
STEPHENSON

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