Cablegate: Panama Seeks Solutions to Arms-for-Drugs Trade

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 02 PANAMA 002923



E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/03/2014


Classified By: DCM Christopher J. McMullen for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).


1. (C) Since the seizure of the "Otterloo" in 2001, a ship
carrying about 3,000 weapons from Nicaragua through Panama to
the AUC in Colombia, the Colombian armed groups (FARC and
AUC) appear to be relying increasingly on smaller
arms-for-drugs purchases, instead of purchasing large amounts
of weapons with cash. Most of the recent weapons seizures in
Panama have been relatively small -- 30 to 50 weapons --
suggesting that the Colombian armed groups recognized their
vulnerability with the Otterloo seizure. Nonetheless, both
the Pacific and Caribbean costs of Panama remain active
arms-for-drugs corridors that GOP officials believe pose a
serious threat to Panama's security. Despite two impressive
arms captures in September and November and extensive talk
about the impact that arms trafficking has on Panama's
domestic crime, budget woes and internal power struggles have
prevented the Panamanian Public Forces (PPF) from taking a
more aggressive stand against arms trafficking. End Summary.


2. (C) In a recent meeting, Panamanian National Police
(PNP) Intelligence Officer Manuel Muy told PolOff that the
standard arms trafficking route is by road via the
Pan-American highway from Nicaragua through Panama.
Traffickers then transfer the arms to boats along the Pacific
coast of Panama to ferry them out to ships waiting in deeper
water, ultimately for delivery to Colombian guerrilla groups,
including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
and United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
Alternatively, Nicaraguan arms are sometimes smuggled by land
into the Caribbean port city of Colon, where the arms are
exchanged for drugs. Indeed, Colon has become an
increasingly dangerous city because of this arms-for-drugs
trafficking that is run by Colombians with the assistance of
Panamanian criminal elements.

3. (C) On September 28 the PNP seized 36 high-caliber
weapons, a grenade launcher, a Dragonov sniper rifle and
ample munitions during a daylight raid on a dock less than
200 yards from the Presidential palace in the center of
Panama City. The PNP was responsible for guarding the dock,
but the PNP officials assigned to guard duty were evidently
absent before the raid. On November 5, the PNP seized a
shipment of 40 AK-47 and a Galil rifle during a raid at a
private residence 12 miles north of the capital. The two
seizures have lifted a veil from a problem that Embassy
source say is growing steadily worse, one which has national
security implications for Colombia and also potentially for

4. (C) In previous discussions, Ministry of Government and
Justice (MOGJ) Security Advisor Severino Mejia told PolOff
that the arms trade is a grave threat to Panama because it
increases the number of illegal weapons in the country and
contributes to rising rates of violence and domestic crime.
Mejia also told PolOff that the GOP believes the weapons are
part of a routine weapons trafficking route bringing former
Sandinista arms from Nicaragua to Colombian guerrilla groups.
Immediately after taking charge of the PNP, Director General
Gustavo Perez said in a September 12 newspaper interview that
illegal arms are a primary threat to Panama's public safety.
Although Perez vowed to attack the problem, the PNP's meager
resources will limit their ability to combat this
Colombian/Panamanian criminal nexus.


5. Panama's objective, according to MOGJ Security Advisor
Mejia, is to prevent international arms traffickers from
using Panama as an arms conduit. MOGJ has proposed employing
more PNP officers in Panama's western provinces closest to
the boarder with Costa Rica where illegal arms enter Panama.
MOGJ also would like to create 11 joint National Maritime
Service (SMN) and National Air Service (SAN) sea and air
defense rings off shore to make Panama uninviting to arms
traffickers. Severino told PolOff that his government hopes
to force the traffickers to move off shore thereby
eliminating the impact within Panama.


6. (C) SMN and MOGJ sources have told EmbOffs that they
plan to assign SMN personnel to guard docks where arms may be
transiting. Members of the PNP were assigned to guard the
dock within shouting distance of the presidential palace on
the day of the September 28 raid, but the PNP officers were
conspicuously absent. Embassy sources speculated that the
PNP officers may have been bribed by the arms dealers to
leave their posts. PNP Director General Gustavo Perez has
openly stated that corruption within the ranks is his
greatest leadership challenge. Perez has announced plans to
investigate suspected police misconduct and improve the
professionalism of the PNP. SMN officials told EmbOffs that
the SMN would take over guarding certain docks beginning in
October, and after repeated comments, they promised the same
for November. Nonetheless, EmbOffs have seen no such


7. (C) Panama recognizes that it must take a stronger stand
against international arms trafficking. In 2001, a ship
named "the Otterloo" carrying about 3,000 weapons from
Nicaragua through Panama to the AUC in Colombia was seized.
Arms trafficking patterns between Central America and
Colombia seem to have subsequently changed. Instead of
purchasing large amounts of weapons with cash, the Colombian
armed groups (FARC and AUC) appear to be relying increasingly
on smaller arms-for-drugs purchases. Recent seizures in
Panama have been small -- 30 to 50 weapons -- suggesting that
the Colombian armed groups recognized their vulnerability
with the "Otterloo" seizure. Nevertheless, both the Pacific
and Caribbean costs of Panama remain key corridors in an
active arms-for-drugs trade that GOP officials believe pose a
serious threat to Panama's security.

8. (C) Despite an extensive platform of security promises
and a request from the MOGJ to increase the PNP budget and
double the SAN and SMN budgets, fiscal realities and domestic
spending priorities have forced the Torrijos administration
to cut financial resources for all three public forces an
estimated 3%. While the probability of a coordinated PPF
air, land and sea barricade against arms trafficking is
unlikely in the coming year, the concept illustrates the
concern within the Torrijos administration's public security
forces and the ministry that controls them.


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