Cablegate: Panama Government Weathers Fierce Criticism As It

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 PANAMA 002829



E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/22/2014

REF: A. PANAMA 02033
B. PANAMA 02553

Classified By: Ambassador Linda E. Watt for reasons 1.4 (b) & (d).


1. (C) With apparent support from President Martin Torrijos,
Minister of Government and Justice Hector Aleman is moving to
centralize control of the Panamanian Public Forces (PPF).
MOGJ sources contend that under the government of former
president Mireya Moscoso, MOGJ exercised weak oversight of
the Panamanian National Police (PNP), while the National
Aviation Service (SAN) and National Maritime Service (SMN)
were left to languish under poor leadership. Aleman and MOGJ
staffers believe that centralized management along with
better accountability and clear missions will improve
efficiency, discipline, and anti-corruption oversight; reduce
duplication; save resources; and foster rational planning.
The Embassy broadly supports those goals, which could improve
MOGJ's coordination with the USG's law enforcement and
counter-terrorism objectives in Panama. The downside is that
centralization could lead to MOGJ micro-management, red tape,
and increased in-fighting between GOP departments. Another
underlying reality is that austerity may reduce already
inadequate PPF budgets by 15%, which could adversely affect
the GOP's ability to support U.S. security and law
enforcement goals.

2. (C) MOGJ's centralizing plans come at a time when the
local press has pilloried the Torrijos government for
allegedly plotting to resurrect Panama's military, following
a series of ill-considered miscues, which include airing
Noriega-era military marches at public ceremonies,
high-profile National Day parades of armed militarized
police, the apparent creeping re-introduction of military
ranks, and a refusal to disavow plans for a new law to permit
the GOP to appoint a uniformed PNP head. The USG also has
been criticized for aiding and abetting this alleged
"remilitarization." The recent coincidental back-to-back
visits of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and USARSO Commander
John Gardner have added fuel to the fire. The local press
has forced Torrijos and Aleman both to publicly deny that
they are trying to re-militarize Panama.

3. (C) Panama has not had a military since Operation Just
Cause ousted military dictator Manuel Noriega and the Panama
Defense Forces (PDF) in 1989. Panama's 1994 constitution
banned the military. The PPF's resulting lack of focus and
dysfunctionality was not entirely unintentional but welcomed
as a fail-safe system to preclude any possibility of a
military coup. Most Panamanians believe that Panama's
military "virus" now is firmly eradicated. But the strong
sensitivities that remain mean that MOGJ will have to tread
carefully. So far, we have seen little evidence of the
skillful public relations campaign the GOP will have to wage
if it is to convince public opinion of the rightness of its
reforms. On the contrary, Torrijos officials seem to be
handing their opponents a stick to beat them with. For our
part, Embassy is strategizing to protect U.S. equities as
they relate to cooperation on security and law enforcement
matters. While we do not believe this latest media campaign
will undermine the significant progress that we have made
with the Panamanians over the past few years on security
cooperation, this recent politically driven criticism of
U.S.-GOP security re-engagement will force the Embassy to
take a more measured approach on any security issues that
could fuel the current feeding frenzy. End Summary.

Focus of MOGJ's New Plan

4. (C) Minister of Government and Justice Hector Aleman,
backed by President Martin Torrijos, is working to realign
Panama's Public Forces (PPF) more firmly under his control to
better define their missions, improve cooperation, and
conserve limited resources. The GOP believes that a lack of
clear missions for the National Aviation Service (SAN) and
National Maritime Service (SMN) and many of the 21 MOGJ
agencies has duplicated efforts and caused insufficiencies in
Panama's security that have allowed arms and drugs
traffickers to enter Panama. The key players in this process
are Minister Aleman and his national security advisor,
Severino Mejia. A project to write new organic laws for
almost all 21 MOGJ agencies (except the PNP, which has had an
organic law since 1997) is one focus of the effort. Another
focus is MOGJ's recent demand for all agencies to report
inventories and equipment condition. MOGJ intends to hold
managers accountable for state-owned equipment. For each
agency MOGJ has written 30-, 60-, 90-day plans and one-,
three-, and five-year plans and, in some cases, 10-year
plans. Also, MOGJ is lobbying the Presidency for its budget
proposals for all agencies.

Draft Organic Laws

5. (C) MOGJ is circulating new draft organic laws for SMN,
SAN, SINAPROC, Public Security (which controls civilian arms,
explosives, and fireworks), fire departments, and others.
The purpose is to assign clear missions and reduce future
conflict between agencies. The draft organic laws place the
SAN and SMN for the first time on an equal footing with the
PNP. (Previous arrangements had subordinated them to the PNP
and tasked them with providing transportation needs.) The
draft law proposes controversial, military-sounding name
changes. SMN would be renamed Panamanian Coast Guard Corps
and would have sole responsibility for coastal patrol, Canal
defense, port defense, and fishing violations. SAN would be
renamed Panamanian Air Guard would handle search and rescue
and disaster response and would provide air support for the
PNP and SMN in drug interdiction and border patrol
activities. (Comment: The use of the term "Guardia" conjures
up negative connotations for many Panamanians who remember
the National Guard ("Guardia Nacional") roots of the
Torrijos/Noriega dictatorship. See Para 9. End comment.)

Most Important Missions: Drugs, Arms

6. (C) MOGJ National Security Advisor Severino Mejia
Mosquera is Aleman's point man in reorganizing and
coordinating the PPF. He sees drug and weapons trafficking
as the primary threats to Panama. He becomes animated when
speaking of Panama's need to have the means to combat
terrorism, arms and drug trafficking, and criminal violence.
To complement the draft laws, Mejia is writing a joint
operations and training manual that provides regulations
detailing how the SAN and SMN should carry out their duties.
He told PolOff that MOGJ will expect the SAN and SMN to run
joint drug and weapons interdiction efforts. How all of that
will play out in practice is unclear. (Note: Air Service
chief Fabrega has complained to PolOffs of Mejia's
"interference" in his autonomy. PNP chief Gustavo Perez has
told EmbOffs that he wants no part of coordinating or
cooperating with the SMN and SAN. While interagency
coordination and ministry oversight could improve management
markedly, micro-management would not. It is still uncertain
how far central control will reach. End Note.)

Financial Weakness

7. (C) The most conspicuous weakness of the GOP's plan to
modernize its public forces is financial. The PNP, SMN, and
SAN all require bigger budget outlays for increased equipment
and personnel to take on the security tasks that the GOP
wants to assign them. (Already inadequate PPF budgets have
faced across-the-board 15% budget cuts for the coming fical
year.) In addition, SMN is running an estimated $2 million
deficit and the PNP reportedly has a $12 million deficit.
Little wonder, then, that Mejia groused to PolOff that when
forced to choose, the GOP ignores security in favor of its
domestic agendas of health, social security, and other
programs. (Comment: Mejia's remark undercuts claims that the
GOP is bent on re-militarizing Panama, although that fact is
lost on an ill-informed, politically-driven local press. End

The Key Players: Aleman and Mejia

8. (C) Minister Aleman has actively sought consultations
from the USG during his first two months in office. He
participated actively in a USG-GOP bilateral security
workshop in August, has asked for Embassy feedback on several
organic laws, and traveled to Washington to consult with DHS,
DOD, and USCG officials. Most recently, he met with
Secretary Rumsfeld during the Secretary's meeting with
President Torrijos. He has been actively collecting ideas
for reinventing the structure of the agencies that fall under
his mandate. A former School of the Americas honor student,
Severino Mejia makes no bones about his former close
association with Manuel Noriega. As a PDF captain during the
1980's, Mejia was Noriega's aide-de-camp. He also worked in
Panama's mission to the United Nations. (Bio Note: Mejia
holds a University of Panama BA in International Relations
and a master's degree in Business Administration. End note.)

Miscues and Missteps

9. (C) Recurring public relations gaffes and/or ambiguities
(see below) have raised questions about the GOP's intentions
and have forced both Torrijos and Aleman to make public
statements recently denying any attempt or intent to
re-militarize the PPF.

-The press has repeatedly speculated about plans that
Torrijos announced prior to the May 2, 2004 election to
appoint a uniformed chief to head the PNP, although Aleman
recently said the plan is on hold "for now." The law
currently bars anyone but a civilian for that job. Torrijos
says he wants to name a PNP chief who has "come up through
the ranks" but many fear that, once the law is changed,
Torrijos will appoint a former high-ranking Panamanian
Defense Forces (PDF) officer.

-During the election campaign Torrijos frequently highlighted
his family connection with his father, military dictator Omar
Torrijos (d.1981). Since Martin Torrijos took office on
September 1, press reports have alleged that 19 former
(unnamed) officers from Noriega's PDF are serving in the GOP.

-At the September 2 swearing ceremony of PNP chief Gustavo
Perez and again during the November 3 and November 4 parades
marking Panama Independence Day, the PPF band shocked many
Panamanians by playing "Todo Por La Patria," a military march
that served as the PDF anthem. The song had not been heard
in public since Operation Just Cause toppled Noriega. The
song's composer, Antonio Fernandez Gomez (aka "Tony Fergo"),
who also is Martin Torrijos's father-in-law, publicly
criticized the playing of "Todo Por La Patria," saying that
he wrote it for a different time and purpose.

-Militarized police with painted faces unnerved some
observers when they marched in camouflage gear while holding
automatic weapons, rocket propelled grenades, and sniper
rifles in this year's Independence Day parades. (Such units
first appeared in the November 3, 2003 Centennial parade
attended by Secretary Powell but caused little ruckus.)

-The SMN and SAN draft organic laws propose military-sounding
name changes of SMN and SAN to "Panamanian Coast Guard Corps"
and "Panamanian Air Guard." One Torrijos confidant told POL
Counselor that he had warned Torrijos that if the name
changes go through, the PNP would soon demand to be called
the "National Guard" or "Guardia Nacional." (Note: In 1953,
the name of Panama's Fuerza Publica was changed to Guardia
Nacional, an act many Panamanians regard as the start of
militarization. Omar Torrijos confirmed the name "Guardia
Nacional" in Panama's 1972 constitution. Panama's 1983
constitution under Manuel Noriega dropped Guardia Nacional in
favor of "Fuerzas de Defensa de Panama" or PDF in English.
End note.)

-The two draft laws also establish titles military sounding
"Comandante" for the SMN and SAN successor chiefs. SMN chief
Traad is already signing official correspondence as
"Comandante." Panamanians have complained about hearing
former PDF officials now serving in the GOP being addressed
as "mi coronel," a military rank that does not now exist.
Although it might have an innocuous explanation, people have
overheard former PDF Colonel Daniel Delgado (now at the
foreign ministry) being addressed as "Coronel Delgado" during
Secretary Rumsfeld's visit and before, whereas before taking
office he was always called "Licenciado Delgado."

-Aleman's aide, Severino Mejia, told PolOff that after
meeting with USG officials, MOGJ Aleman remarked that he
wants to emulate the role of U.S. Secretary of Defense.
Aleman probably meant he wants to have enough authority over
the 21 PPF agencies to improve management, efficiency, and
inter-agency coordination. However, such seemingly innocent
remarks in the current climate, especially if quoted by the
press, could reinforce fears about "remilitarization."

-USARSO Commander MG John Gardner visited Panama during
November 16-17 to prepare for the 2005 humanitarian exercise
"New Horizons." Nonetheless, his visit, hard on the heels of
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's November 13-14 visit to Panama,
has added fuel to the anti-military fire, leading some to
theorize that the U.S. is encouraging the alleged


10. (C) When U.S. military forces withdrew in 1999, Panama
had to accept responsibility for border and Canal security.
It was hardly prepared for the task then, and is only
marginally better prepared now. Panama's PPF needs a great
deal more money, manpower, training, and equipment to
adequately fulfill the minimum security requirements of the
state. The bottom line is that Panama does not have the
money to re-militarize, even if it wanted to. Although it
does not need (or want) a military, Panama does need a well
reasoned security strategy with broad public support and a
well trained, properly funded and administered public force
apparatus. Panama's current concerns about transnational
crime and terrorism mesh with many of our own priorities.
Those imperatives have crashed head on with the Panamanian
public's well founded mistrust of military organizations and
its cynical expectation that local politicos will use
military power, if they can, against their political
opponents. Panama's unsophisticated, sensationalist, and
poorly trained press has fueled popular concerns.

11. (C) The new GOP under Torrijos, having downplayed those
sensitivities in implementing its security strategy, has
unleashed a storm of criticism, which it now is trying to
ride out. Panama's knee-jerk anti-militarism is being
exploited by elements of the press and elite Panamanians who
mistrust the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). A fair
amount of hypocrisy, not to say schizophrenia, is involved.
For instance, no one complained when former SMN Director
General (until 9/1/2004) Jose Isaza wore a uniform and called
himself "comandante."

12. (C) Despite lurid denunciations of military bogeymen
which have been appearing daily in the local press, we do not
believe the Torrijos government is aiming to re-militarize
Panama, much less re-establish military rule. What the GOP
needs to do but what it is not yet doing is to publicize
Panama's security needs in a forthright manner to build
public support. It is clear that the USG will be blamed in
the public mind by any perception, false or otherwise, that
the GOP intends to re-militarize. The Embassy seeks to
preserve the carefully calibrated security re-engagement
strategy it has pursued over the past several years and must
avoid being seen as pushing Panama toward accepting
extraneous military responsibilities or capabilities. To
pursue this balancing act, to protect the USG's equities, and
to avoid getting dragged down by GOP missteps, Embassy is
working on a press strategy to protect U.S. equities in the
bilateral security relationship.


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