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Cablegate: Panama's New Security Laws Passed Amidst Opposition


DE RUEHZP #0725/01 2491244
R 051244Z SEP 08

C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 000725


E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/25/2018

B. REF B: PANAMA 00325
C. REF C: PANAMA 00704

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


1. (C) The GOP approved five controversial security laws by
decree on August 18 and 20. The decrees will: 1) create an
independent civilian intelligence service (SENIS); 2) create
a coast guard (SENAN); 3) create a frontier force to protect
the borders (SENAFRONT); 4) reform the Panamanian National
Police law to allow a uniformed officer to lead the force;
and 5) develop the legal framework of the existing
Institutional Protection Service (which provides protection
to the President and other VIPs), including allowing a
uniformed officer to lead that force. The GOP has argued that
these laws are necessary to modernize the security forces to
deal with potential threats to the Canal, increasing
organized crime and drug dealing activity, and increasing
rates of common crime. The proposals had drawn sharp
protest from civil society groups, the main business
organizations, and some government officials. The protests
centered on the approval of politically sensitive laws by
decree, and the perception among some groups that the GOP was
attempting to "re-militarize" Panama. This perception was
reinforced by the presence in the GOP of several Ministers
with ties to the Noriega regime, including Minister of
Government and Justice Daniel Delgado. (Note: The Ministry of
Government and Justice controls almost all Panama's security
forces. End Note). Those opposing the laws have tried to tie
them to the Merida Initiative, and have accused the USG of
pushing the reforms as part of the Global War on Terrorism.
It remains to be seen if the passage of the laws will lead to
a decline in protests. The security laws have already become
an issue in the upcoming elections, thus drawing the robust
and far-reaching U.S. security relationship with Panama into
the domestic political debate. Post encourages all USG
agencies to treat this issue cautiously, as Post attempts to
separate the USG's long-term security relationship with
Panama from internal Panamanian politics. End Summary.

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Laws Passed Under the Cover of Olympic Party

2. (C) President Martin Torrijos decreed two of the five
security laws that had been under consideration for the last
month (see Ref A) on August 18, and the remaining three on
August 20. The laws were approved by Torrijos after being
debated by the Cabinet under special decree powers that were
granted to Torrijos by the National Assembly (NA) on July 3,
prior to its summer recess. The powers were set to run out on
August 31, thereby putting the GOP under pressure to act
quickly. The GOP had been engaged in a "consultation"
process, whereby officials met with civil society leaders to
explain the proposals, in an attempt to blunt growing
opposition among civil society groups and the major
newspapers. The "consultation" process failed in this goal,
as almost every group that met with the officials came out in
the papers the following days questioning the laws, and
calling for a wider debate over the proposed changes.
Further, many opposition political, NGO, civil society,
media, and other leaders refused to participate in these
last-minute consultations.

3. (C) Political analyst Jose Blandon, Sr., a political
analyst who was working with the Cabinet on this project,
told PolCouns August 15 that he had recommended to President
Torrijos that the laws be passed quickly to prevent the
opposition from reaching critical mass. Blandon reported that
Torrijos would approve the laws on August 18-20, hoping that
reaction would be muted due to popular recent wage increases,
and the distraction of an intense primary contest for the
Presidential nomination within the ruling Democratic
Revolutionary Party (PRD). The GOP caught a lucky break when
Irving Saladino won Panama's first ever gold medal on August
18. Torrijos declared a holiday to celebrate on August 21,
the same day the papers announced the approval of the last
three laws.

New Intelligence Service Created

4. (C) The most controversial of the five laws approved by
the GOP is the Decree Law Number 9, that reorganizes the
Committee of Public Security and National Defense (CSPDN) and
creates the National Intelligence and Security Service
(SENIS). Up to now, the CSPDN has served as a Panamanian
version of the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), with an
unofficial spy agency, the Executive Secretariat, appended to
it. The original structure of the CSPDN was established by an
Executive Decree from 1991, modified in 2001. The new law
breaks the SENIS off from the CSPDN, creating a stand alone
intelligence agency (SENIS) and a true Panamanian NSC, the
CSPDN. The law places the SENIS under the Minister of the
Presidency. The SENIS is responsible for providing the
President and the GOP, "the information, analysis, studies
and proposals that allow (the GOP) to prevent and avoid any
danger, threat or aggression against the independence,
sovereignty and territorial integrity (of Panama), as well as
against the national interests and the stability of the Rule
of Law and the institutions of the State." The SENIS is thus
empowered to act against a wide range of ill-defined threats,
though the officers are required to "respect human rights and
fundamental guarantees," and forbidden to engage in political
or union activities, political espionage, release information
they have gathered in the course of their official duties, or
any other activity which, "damages the life, honor, or
property of people."

5. (C) The law as passed is significantly different from
the draft law as first proposed and presented to the public
on GOP websites and in the consultation process. Indeed, it
is five pages shorter. All mention of the SENIS's
responsibility for classifying information is omitted, as is
the new classification system that was proposed, and much of
the language referring to the secret nature of the SENIS. The
new law also omits the entire judicial and legislative
oversight provision. (Comment: It seems likely that these
changes were designed to take out of the public view some of
the aspects of the law which were more controversial, and
those that required more detailed work, like the oversight
provisions. Furthermore, the fact that changes recommended
during the GOP's limited consultation process were
incorporated has been lost on the public as the Torrijos
Administration has done a poor job at communicating these
changes. End Comment.)

6. (C) Jaime Abad, former Director of the Judicial
Investigative Police (PTJ) and GOP consultant on the security
laws, told PolOff August 18 that the SENIS law was needed
because the CSPDN already engaged in all the espionage
activities the law described, but with no legal safeguards at
all. He said the requirement of judicial approval for
"preventative" wiretaps (Note: Removed from the version of
the bill that was decreed. End Note) was particularly
important. Speaking before a Forum on the laws organized by
the opposition alliance of the Democratic Change party (CD)
and the Patriotic Union (UP) party on August 11, Abad said
that Panama faced real threats due to the presence of the
Canal, and the proximity of Colombia, and had to develop
institutions that could detect and prevent attacks before
they occurred.

Return of the G-2?

7. (C) The SENIS has been the most criticized aspect of the
five laws. Opposition has been led by a new civil society
organization called the Democratic Citizen's Network (RDC).
The head of Transparency International in Panama, Angelica
Maytin, who is now also RDC's spokesperson, told PolOff
August 6 that the main promoters of this movement were three
famous leaders of the "civilista" resistance to the Noriega
regime: Roberto "Bobby" Eisenmann, businessman, founder of La
Prensa newspaper, exiled under Omar Torrijos; Mauro Zuniga, a
doctor who was almost beaten to death for opposing the
Noriega regime; Miguel Antonio Bernal, independent candidate
for Mayor of Panama City, university professor, exiled under
Omar Torrijos at the same time as Eisenmann. The RDC has been
sponsoring weekly protests in front of the same church in
central Panama City where anti-Noriega protests took place at
the end of the 1980s. Eisenmann told PolCouns August 8 that
he could not understand why the GOP would try to legislate on
such a sensitive issue by decree. He noted that while some of
the changes might look fine on paper, the history and
institutional weakness upon which they were being built made
it impossible to give the GOP the benefit of a doubt. Maytin,
at the same meeting, said that Torrijos was rushing to
approve the reforms now because he would loose his authority
among the PRD NA deputies after the PRD primaries scheduled
for September 7. Maytin said the proper place to discuss an
issue as sensitive as security reform was either the NA, or
the "Concertacion," a national dialogue committee that has
frequently been used to discuss important issues in Panama.
Eisenmann said that the RDC would attempt to make the
security laws, and the SENIS in particular, an issue in the
upcoming elections if the GOP approved the reforms, and that
he believed it could tip the balance in the elections away
from the PRD.

8. (C) Mauro Zuniga told PolOff August 12 that the proposed
reforms would "create a monster," and that the secrecy the
law granted to the operations of the SENIS would lead to a
large increase in drug trafficking, as under Noriega. In a
theme that has been repeated by almost all the SENIS's
critics, Zuniga accused the GOP of attempting to recreate the
feared G-2 intelligence service of Noriega's time. Zuniga,
and many of the other opposition leaders, was a direct victim
of the G-2. Zuniga said he believed that the laws would
contribute to "instability," as they indicated that the GOP
was planning to deal with potential social protests
associated with the sharp rise in food prices (see Ref B),
through violence and repression. Miguel Bernal echoed this
idea in an August 21 meeting with PolOff. He predicted that
there would be a social explosion in Panama soon, and that
the SENIS was the GOP's way of responding to that threat. He
said the worst thing about the SENIS was that it was
preventative. (Note: Bernal was referring to preventative
wiretapping power the first version of the bill gave the
SENIS, but which dropped out of the version which was
approved. End Note) He said that preventive cases would give
SENIS agents great latitude to bring false investigations to
obtain information for real blackmailing or political

9. (C) Javier Martinez Acha, former Executive Secretary of
the CSPDN under President Torrijos, told PolOff August 18
that the proposal was far too broad and did not do enough to
prevent political abuse. He said that people were right to
suspect that the SENIS would be used for political espionage,
as the CSPDN has always been used for political espionage.
Martinez specifically accused current CSPDN Executive
Secretary Erick Espinosa of having engaged in political and
even personal, espionage. Martinez said a law was needed to
limit the authority of the SENIS, but that this law was badly
written (referring to the original proposal), and did not
adequately differentiate from true international threats to
Panama, and potential local threats to the government. He
said he believed Julio Lopez Borrero, a Spanish intelligence
agent working for President Torrijos, was behind the law, and
that his influence was negative for Panama, and U.S.
interests. Spanish DCM Miguel Moro told PolCouns August 20
that the proposed SENIS law did track similar Spanish
legislation very closely, and that Lopez was making things
very difficult for the Embassy. He denied Martinez's claim
that Lopez was still actively working for the Spanish
Government, though he acknowledged that Lopez was accredited
to the GOP as a counselor of the Spanish Embassy. Moro
professed that the Spanish Embassy had little contact with
Lopez and was visibly uncomfortable by the position Lopez's
activities had placed the GOS.


10. (C) Decree Law Number Seven creates the National
Aero-Naval Service (SENAN), by fusing the National Air
Service (SAN) and the National Maritime Service (SMN). The
law lays out the internal regulations for the SENAN and seems
to be largely consistent with a Coast Guard like
law-enforcement agency. The SENAN is created to replace a SAN
without operational airplanes or helicopters, and a SMN with
serious operations deficiencies (see Ref C). Abad said that
the SENAN was necessary because Panama was too small to
maintain two separate services, while having to patrol twice
as much area offshore as onshore. Danilo Toro, Director
General of the Ministry of Government and Justice's Integral
Security Program, told PolOff August 11 that the creation of
the SENAN would require a total reorganization of the
structures, models and staff of the existing SAN and SMN, and
would lead to the disappearance of these organizations, not
just their merger. Minister of Government and Justice Daniel
Delgado told Deputy SouthCom Commander Lt. Gen. Spears August
21 that the GOP was working on a $50 million budget
allocation to buy more equipment for the SENAN, including the
refurbishing of seven helicopters, and the training of ten
helicopter pilots.

11. (C) The SENAN proposal has drawn the least opposition of
the five laws. Ebrahim Asvat, President of La Estrella de
Panama daily that has taken a strong editorial line against
the reforms, told the CD-UP Forum that the creation of the
SENAN was an attempt to re-militarize services (SAN and SMN)
that had only failed to perform adequately because they had
been starved of resources. Bernal asked rhetorically why
Panama needed a coast guard if it already had the U.S. Coast
Guard patrolling its waters under the Salas-Becker Agreement
(See Ref C). Martinez called the SENAN proposal "empty
posturing" unless serious financial resources were put into
building an operational service.


12. (C) Decree Law Number Eight creates the National
Frontier Service (SENAFRONT) to patrol Panama's frontiers.
This law actually takes an existing unit of the PNP, called
the National Frontier Directorate (DINAFRONT), and spins it
off into a separate unit. The DINAFRONT is a de-facto
para-military unit. Abad, the former head of the PTJ, said
there were many administrative reasons why breaking the
DINAFRONT off made sense, including ending the practice of
transferring the para-military DINAFRONT troops to temporary
street duty in Panama City, for which they are ill-prepared.
Toro stressed the danger the increasingly disorganized and
chaotic FARC represented to Panama's security and stability,
as Colombian pressure continues to break the organization
apart. He pointed to the chaos caused in Guatemala and El
Salvador after the de-militarized guerrillas and soldiers
turned to crime at the end of their respective civil wars. He
said a defeated FARC was a greater danger to Panama than a
strong and disciplined FARC, and Panama needed to get control
of the Darien before that threat manifested itself. Abad,
when speaking to the CD-UP Forum, called into question
Panama's ability to do that, saying that turning SENAFRONT
into a real deterrent would be too expensive, and calling on
the Darien to be internationalized.

13. (C) Opposition to the SENAFRONT proposal has been
sharp. Zuniga called the SENAFRONT a "mini-army," (Note:
Panama's constitution does not allow for the creation of an
army. End Note) that was not justified by the threat posed by
the increasingly weak FARC. This argument was repeated by
Eisenmann, who said development would be a much more
effective tool for controlling the Darien. Asvat told A/DCM
August 15 that the creation of the SENAFRONT would lead to
greater insecurity as the likelihood of a confrontation with
the FARC grows. Domingo Latorraca, former Vice-Minister of
Economy and former head of the Chamber of Commerce, told
PolOff August 26 that the SENAFRONT was clearly
unconstitutional, as the constitution only allowed for the
creation of "temporary" frontier forces, and the SENAFRONT
was called permanent in the recently passed law.


14. (C) Decree Law Number Five contains just one article,
that modifies the 1997 Organic Law of the PNP, in that it
allows the Director of the PNP to be a civilian with a
university degree, or a Police Officer of the highest rank,
Commissioner. Minister Delgado said that he hoped that this
change would lead to an improvement in morale and
effectiveness in the PNP. The Acting Director, Jaime Ruiz, is
already a Commissioner, and he is likely to be confirmed in
the position. Martinez told PolOff that the idea of changing
this law had come straight from President Torrijos, and had
been his position since before he was elected. Martinez
defended the measure, on the condition that the head of the
PNP be forced to retire after each presidential period, to
prevent he or she from accruing so much power they could
unduly influence the elected government.

15. (C) Maytin attacked this proposal because it undermined
the consensus reached by a national dialogue in 1997 when the
Organic Law of the PNP was passed. That law re-certified the
practice since the return of democracy that the PNP should
always be led by a civilian. Much of the debate about this
law has revolved around the argument about the advantages and
disadvantages of having a "military officer" in charge of the
PNP, given that the law allows for a uniformed PNP officer to
head the PNP. Latorraca noted that most of the senior PNP
leadership have been trained in military academies, and not
police academies.

16. (C) Organic Law Number 6 also allows a uniformed
officer to run the Institutional Protection Service (SPI),
and makes a number of other administrative changes. It has
been the least commented law, though the "militarization" of
the leadership has been criticized. Maytin has publicly
criticized the increase in the number of body guards for
ex-presidents to 12, but it has not been an important part of
the debate.

It's all the Gringos' Fault

17. (C) A recurring theme in the opposition to the security
laws has been the attempt to link the reform proposals to the
USG. Asvat at the CD-UP Forum said that the announcement of
"Plan Merida" and the security reforms in July was no
coincidence. He said that the security reforms aimed to
create an army to fight the U.S.'s wars on drugs and
terrorism. Several other opposition supporters in the
audience of the Forum also voiced strong suspicions that the
ultimate inspiration for the proposals was the USG. Zuniga
has written several op-ed pieces in local papers accusing the
USG of being behind the proposals. Latorraca said the groups
opposed to the laws could be broken into two groups; the
first, led by many of those who suffered under the
dictatorship first hand, holds the more emotional and radical
position that these laws are part of a U.S.-led conspiracy,
and consitute an immediate threat to Panama's democracy; the
second group is concerned that the changes in the security
services constitute a long term threat to Panama's democracy,
leaving it vulnerable to a military take over in the future.
The anti-American arguments have been strongest among the
former group, and are based on their understanding of the
U.S. role leading up to the Omar Torrijos dictatorship, and
our relationship to Noriega. An unfortunate series of
coincidences, including Minister Delgado's visit to the U.S.
in July at Secretary of Defense Gates' request, and the
announcement of the Merida Initiative in July, has provided
the lines that the opposition has been able to connect to
find a U.S. hand behind the reforms.

Will Security Become Politicized?

18. (C) The opposition parties are still coming to grips
with how best to respond to the protests surrounding these
reforms. While Ricardo Martinelli, the Presidential candidate
of the Democratic Change-Patriotic Union alliance (CD-UP),
has come out publicly in the press saying he would repeal the
laws, no party officials spoke at the CD-UP Forum. On
September 2, Panamenista Presidential candidate Juan Carlos
Varela raised the specter of "militarization" and rejected
the security reform laws on two grounds; process, lamenting
inadequate consultation and slamming the Torrijos
Administration for its "undemocratic" tendencies; and
substance, stating that the laws were unnecessary, failed to
meet average Panamanians' immediate security concerns and
constituted a threat to democracy. PRD presidential candidate
Balbina Herrera, who is likely to win the PRD primary on
September 7, told PolCouns on August 22 that she was
"furious" with the way Torrijos "mismanaged the security
laws. "They (the Torrijos Administration) painted a target on
my back, and created a political campaign issue where none
existed before," lamented Herrera. Civil society groups
marched on the National Assembly on September 3 to protest
these laws.


19. (C) The GOP's effort to reform its security services is
long overdue. The SAN and SMN in particular, suffer from
major problems, which gravely affects their ability to
effectively cooperate with the U.S. in the anti-drug effort.
Only the wholesale reform Toro talks about will really make a
difference, however, as the SMN in particular does not suffer
from a lack of resources, but rather from corruption and
extremely poor leadership. A robust coast guard is far more
in line with the country's needs rather than a pretend navy
and pretend air force. Creating an effective coast guard will
require, as Martinez pointed out, massive resources to really
make a difference. SENAFRONT is also a long overdue and
worthwhile endeavor, as Panama has real problems exerting
effective government control in the Darien, and an
operational border force can only help. The U.S. should
engage in the process of buiding up the SENAN and SENAFRONT,
but only after two conditions are met: 1) we get clear
evidence that the kind of needed personnel and cultural
reforms are taking place within these instutions; 2) we are
sure that the reforms are not being implemented in any way
that might undermine democracy, accountability, human rights
and the rule of law in Panama. The complaints about U.S.
involvement in the militarization of the SENAN and SENAFRONT
could be met by designating DHS assets, such as Coast Guard,
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and
Border Protection (CBP) to take the lead on assistance
efforts, rather than only having Department of Defense led
military training and assistance. The other three laws,
SENIS, PNP and SPI, are not as significant for USG
cooperation. The SENIS law is about bringing something hidden
into the open, and will probably not effect our cooperation
much, while the PNP and SPI laws are purely internal matters.
If they improve operational effectiveness, as Minister
Delgado hopes, so much the better.

20. (C) That said, the GOP's public handling of this issue
has been an absolute disaster. Many of these reforms, such as
the SENAN and the SENAFRONT, would have been relatively
uncontroversial if the case had been made in public as to why
they were necessary. Others, such as the SENIS and the
modification of the law allowing officers to run the PNP and
SPI, should never have been attempted without getting wide
public buy-in through some sort of consensus-building
mechanism. It has become increasingly clear as this debate
has developed that the wounds of the Noriega era have not
fully healed. While the GOP has succeeded in passing the
laws, that was never really the issue. The real test was to
get public support so the changes would become
institutionalized, and a new security structure could be
built upon them. Instead, the SENIS is likely to cast a pall
upon all the reforms, turning them into a political
opportunity too good for the opposition to pass up. As a
result the leaders of the new security organizations must now
work to implement the changes, knowing that they may be
undone by the incoming administration. Worse for the U.S.,
the debate risks casting U.S. security cooperation with
Panama in a partisan light, which is not beneficial to the
USG, or to Panama. For this reason, the Embassy is working
hard to separate the long term U.S. security cooperation
relationship with Panama from the debate surrounding these
laws. While we will not go out of our way to comment,
when/if we must take a public position, we will say that an
issue as important as security reform needs the buy-in a
full, democratic vetting would give it, and we will reject
the false dichotomy of security or democracy, insisting that
the best security solutions are always anchored in democracy.

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