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Cablegate: Panama Proposed Merger of Air and Maritime

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





E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) An October 6 proposal by Panama's Minister of
Government and Justice (MOGJ) Hector Aleman to combine
Panama's National Maritime Service (SMN) and National Air
Service (SAN) into a National Coast Guard (Guardacostas) as
an efficiency and cost-saving measure drew criticism from
former Panamanian President Guillermo Endara, who immediately
labeled the plan unconstitutional. In newspaper reports that
showed the Government of Panama's (GOP) sensitivity to
anti-remilitarization critics, Aleman seemed to argue that
the proposed merger would help to prevent the SMN and SAN's
evolution into strong military forces capable of threatening
Panama's democracy. The proposal partly is an attempt to
reform the SMN and SAN which clearly suffer from
underfunding, shoddy maintenance, and poor leadership but to
succeed it will need much higher budget outlays. Those look
improbable. End summary.

Coastal Security
2. Danilo Toro, MOGJ Chief of Staff, told PolOff that Panama
needs a combined SMN-SAN Coast Guard to provide coastal
security and protect infrastructure. Toro believes the
proposed Guardacostas doesn't violate Panama's constitution
and the National Assembly only needs to enact new
legislation. Funding probably will emerge as the main issue.
The new service will need improved equipment and maintenance
procedures, and possibly new bases to provide better
protection to the Panama Canal and leaky borders with Costa
Rica and Colombia, Toro said. Panama also wants to protect
its Atlantic and Pacific coastlines that total over 1500
miles in length and that are dotted by over 400 islands.

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Era of the bad feelings:1968-1989
3. (SBU) Since Operation Just Cause removed Panama's
military dictatorship and restored democracy in December
1989, many Panamanians fear the remilitarization of their
country and some bristle at the presence of U.S. forces even
during off-shore exercises such as PANAMAX. In 1994, Panama
amended its constitution (article 310) to prohibit the
establishment of a permanent military. The constitution
permits legislation to organize necessary police services
which led to the creation of the Panamanian Public Forces
(PPF) all under civilian control. (Comment: the current SMN
director wears a white Rear Admiral's uniform, an irritant to
many anti-military Panamanians. End comment.) The PPF
includes the Panamanian National Police (PNP), SAN, and SMN
under the authority of the MOGJ. The Ministry of the
Presidency supervises the fourth element of the PNP, the
Institutional Protection Service (SPI), the Presidential

Immediate Response
4. (SBU) Shortly after Aleman's announcement about the
proposed Coast Guard, former President Guillermo Endara and
(separately) retired Noriega-era General Ruben Dario Paredes
denounced the plan as unconstitutional. Endara, Panama's
president from 1989 to 1994, told newspaper reporters that
the plan made him nervous. Endara fears that concentrating
power in a single organization could pose a threat to
democracy. Clear divisions between the PPF elements,
established during his presidency, were designed to prevent a
concentrating power. Paredes labeled the proposed Coast
Guard a violation of article 310 of the constitution and
expressed fears that it would lead to an evolution of a
"strong man" who could threaten Panama's democracy.
(Comment: Paredes comments are somewhat ironical since he has
first hand-knowledge of how "strong-men" emerge. He won a
power struggle to became chief of staff of Panama's Guardia
Nacional after the death of Omar Torrijos in 1981, then
forced Panama's President Royo to resign, but was eventually
forced out of power by Noriega. End comment.)

Reorganization "a real possibility"
5. (SBU) In January 2005, the SMN was shaken by the death
of a marine recruit and in August by the drowning of three
marines during a mock assault on an island in the Panama
Canal. Amid calls for his resignation, SMN director Rear
Admiral Ricardo Traad drew heavy criticism for the deaths and
for his frequent travel and comfortable lifestyle. Toro
spoke openly and confidently about the reorganization during
his discussion with PolOff, adding that a final decision
rests with President Martin Torrijos, Aleman, and the
National Assembly. Toro emphasized that the initial
reorganization plan had been developed in June before the
PANAMAX drownings, it was not a reaction to the tragedy as
many newspaper accounts claimed. He also said Panama cannot
afford to continue wasting its money by funding the SMN and
SAN as inefficient separate entities which always compete for
scarce resources. Toro did not discuss how joining the two
services would save money. Toro also emphasized the proposal
does not represent a change in Panama's relationship with the
United States or the Department of Defense.

SMN/SAN: no real threat to democracy.
6. (SBU) Neither the SMN or the SAN currently pose any
threat to the GOP according to Embassy DOD officers. Neither
service has heavy weaponry, tanks, armored vehicles, attack
helicopters or fighter aircraft to stage a coup. Toro
reminded PolOff that the PNP has over 15,000 members, much
more than the SMN and SAN combined. Currently three of the
six SMN's lightly armed patrol boats are dry-docked due to
corrosion problems.

7. (SBU) The SMN has only 700 members, 150 of whom are
marines, but leadership at all ranks is poor. Public
criticism of its professionalism is rampant. The SAN's aging
fleet of helicopters and transport aircraft, the majority of
which are over twenty years old, suffer from poor
maintenance, often the result of high turnover of experienced
mechanics to better paying jobs. The 700 member SAN has four
unarmed T-35 trainer aircraft and two propeller driven C-212
transport aircraft. The rotary squadron of 14 aircraft
consists of mostly UH-1 helicopters only five of which are
currently airworthy. Four of the helicopters are being
cannibalized for spare parts. Following a maintenance
assessment by the Missouri Army National Guard in September,
the Embassy has advised its personnel not to fly on
Panamanian helicopters due to safety concerns. Any threat
posed to the GOP by the SAN/SMN could be answered by the over
15,000 members of the PNP but that organization is also in
the process of reorganization.

The Canal is always the key
8. (SBU) Maritime security and protecting the Canal and its
associated ports is crucial to Panama's economy, Toro
emphasized. Much of Panama's infrastructure such as its
Atlantic-to-Pacific railway and communications systems are
located on or near the Canal. In an incident two weeks ago
that rendered most of Panama's phone and computer systems
inoperable, vandals cut a fiber optic cable in the Atlantic
port city of Colon possibly believing it was copper wire that
could quickly be sold for cash. Toro feels this incident
underscores the need for better protection of the country's
infrastructure. (Comment: an act of vandalism, such as the
cutting of a phone cable is a problem for the police to
prevent, not maritime forces.)

A well-thought out plan?
9. (SBU) When PolOff asked Toro what Panama needs to effect
this proposed merger, he quickly provided a checklist agenda.
Toro's checklist, although not detailed, provides a good
overview of some of the problems with the current force
structure. Toro stated the plan must begin with the
development of new doctrine focused on coastal defense, not
just defending the Canal. Next, the new Coast Guard would
need additional naval bases and airports to base its
operations. Toro cited the need to increase resources for
proper maintenance of ships and aircraft. The final part of
the plan is to increase training for all PPF members in the
new service.

Comment: Time for a fresh start?
10. (SBU) The idea of creating a coast guard, possibly
modeled along the lines of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), is
innovative and shows both the GOP and MOGJ are willing to try
new ideas to solve systemic problems in the SAN and SMN. In
some ways, starting a new organization might be easier than
trying to repair the existing structure of the SMN and SAN.
It also avoids potential disagreements about which service
should receive new equipment at the expense of the other.
Since the USCG is nominally a law enforcement agency under
DHS, Panama's use of this model could address some of the
existing public fears of remilitarization.
Spend Money to Save Money?
11. (SBU) The missing pieces in the plan are resources and
training. Simply merging the two poorly- equipped forces is
not a solution. Purchasing new helicopters and ships will be
expensive and also pointless without proper maintenance.
Though part of the justification for the reorganization is to
reduce spending, the GOP will need to spend a considerable
amount of money to ensure their plan succeeds. The issue of
training and professionalism in the PPF also needs to be

Opportunity for the U.S.?
12. (SBU) The drowning of three marines conducting what
should be a basic military maneuver for them points to
serious training deficiencies. Panama faces a real challenge
in creating a new organization from two troubled units and
will look to the U.S. for guidance, training, and resources
if it attempts to move forward with this major change. The
plan also presents the U.S. with an opportunity to assist in
the creation of an organization that will better serve U.S.
interests in a region frequently called "America's third
border." Aleman and Toro have said Panama cannot afford to
continue operating both the SAN and SMN. How Panama plans to
fund a Coast Guard that will need new bases, equipment, and
maintenance facilities is the critical issue.


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