Cablegate: Panama: Asvat Lays Out Security Plan; Martinelli


DE RUEHZP #0930/01 3542053
R 192053Z DEC 08

C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 000930


E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/09/2018

REF: A. A: PANAMA 00789
B. B: PANAMA 00725

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


1. (C) Ebrahim Asvat, President of La Estrella newspaper,
former director of the Panamanian National Police, and
possible candidate for Minister of Government and Justice
told PolOff that Panama needed to reorient its security
resources away from trying to interdict drugs on the seas and
borders and towards securing its main urban centers by taking
on the growing threat of gang violence. He said the recent
security reforms that established frontier, aero-naval, and
intelligence services should be undone. A new administrative
reform should be undertaken, Asvat argued, to centralize the
administration of all the security forces in a new Ministry
of Public Security under firm civilian control. Asvat said
Panama could not confront the FARC militarily and even went
so far to assert that, due to Colombia's success against the
FARC, Panama did not need to. End Summary

It's the Cities, Stupid

2. (C) Ebrahim Asvat, President of the Panama City daily La
Estrella and a partner in an international law firm, told
PolOff November 25 that Panama needed to radically revise its
security strategy in the wake of the divisive national debate
on the Torrijos government's security reforms (see reftel B).
He asserted former Minister of Government and Justice Daniel
Delgado Diamante (DDD), who pushed for passage of the laws,
had really wanted to impose a military structure on Panama's
security services. (Note: DDD was forced to step down in
November 2008 pending judicial resolution into his
involvement in the 1972 homicide of a National Guard
soldier.) Asvat added that the reforms were crafted to
emphasize the fight against drug trafficking in Panama's
territorial waters and on its borders in the hope of getting
U.S. military assistance in the form of helicopters and
patrol boats (Note: The reforms created a separate border
force (National Frontier Service - SENAFRONT), and merged the
sea (SMN) and air (SAN) services into a combined aero-naval
service (National Aero-Naval Service - SENAN), as detailed in
reftel B. End Note). The failure to address the growing
public concern with urban crime then contributed to the
public's rejection of the reforms. He complained that the
restructuring imposed by the reforms would require a
substantial investment in air, naval and frontier forces at a
time when the urban police force was overwhelmed by
gang-related street crime. Asvat, who is a possible future
Minister of Government and Justice (see para 7), said the
next government would have to concentrate on improving
security in Panama City, San Miguelito, Colon and David, the
major Panamanian population centers experiencing increased
crime and gang activity. Securing Panama's frontiers and
territorial waters should wait, according to Asvat. He
specifically rejected DDD's claim that the urban crime wave
was directly linked to drug trafficking and so best dealt
with by curbing drug trafficking.

3. (C) Discussing security threats, Asvat said that gangs
were not yet well developed in Panama, but that they needed
to be confronted now before they became stronger. He said
that gangs were doing some jobs for trafficking
organizations, and they might eventually be coopted by
international drug cartels, a development that would pose a
threat to the stability of the country. The keys to
confronting the gangs, according to Asvat, were to increase
citizen participation and expand police presence into
problematic neighborhoods to prevent crime. While he praised

the present government's Integral Security Program (PROSI),
for its proposed use of social programs to prevent crime, he
said that DDD had not implemented it seriously. Asvat added
that he did not believe that the only response to crime was
to wait for the long-term results of social programs, but
said that such long-term social programs needed to be
combined in the near-term with effective police strategies to
combat and prevent crime now.

Security Re-Reform?

4. (C) Asvat said that DDD's security reform not only ignored
the real problem of street crime, but also failed to address
the biggest internal problem of the security forces
themselves: mis-management. At present, each security
service, the Panamanian National Police (PNP) and the SENAN
among others has its own administrative structure, and each
basically acts on its own, establishing its own priorities,
tactics, and threat assessments. Asvat said the system needed
to be reformed by creating a Ministry of Public Security that
would control all the security services, plus Immigration,
and Customs. This new ministry would then assume the
administrative functions from each of the services and create
a unified structure. The ministry would also become
responsible for devising a national strategy against crime,
gathering statistics, deploying forces in such a way as to
prevent crime, developing an effective system of public
participation in the security system (community policing),
and acquiring adequate resources for the security forces. The
ministry would be firmly under the control of civilians, but
there would be an advisory board of retired commissioners
whose professional advice would be sought in coming up with
policy proposals. (Comment: This is in fact very similar to
GOP explanations of what they were trying to do with their
reforms. See septel. End Comment)

5. (C) Asked what would happen to the DDD reforms if the
opposition won the May 3, 2009 elections, Asvat said the
security structure put in place by the reforms would have to
be undone. The SENAN would be broken back into SMN and SAN,
civilians put in charge of all the services, and the new
intelligence service (National Intelligence and Security
Service - SENIS) restricted to external intelligence, while
the Police took over domestic intelligence. He stressed that
all of these reforms would have to be approved by the kind of
broad consensus building exercise that DDD had failed to
engage in.

Waiting for Uribe to Defeat the FARC

6. (C) Asked about the situation in the Darien, Asvat said
that Panama could not afford to confront the FARC because it
did not have the military capability to do so successfully.
He said the best Panama could hope for would be a force that
could deter the FARC from committing crimes in Panama,
especially kidnapping, or from establishing a bases in Panama
for offensive actions in Colombia. Asvat said that as long as
the FARC were just entering Panama to rest, then Panama
should not interfere, as the threat to Panama was not great
enough to warrant taking "risky" action. He praised Colombian
President Uribe, saying that Colombia was doing a great job
against the FARC. He said he admired Uribe,s willingness to
stand up to criticism of his alliance with the U.S. and to
impose order within Colombia. He did not understand human
rights groups that criticized Uribe for things that had
happened in the past when Uribe was clearly improving the
human rights situation on the ground. While noting that
society's wounds would not heal unless there was recognition
of the wrongs done to people, Asvat said he did not think
this was necessarily the time for such a reckoning, as the
security gains were still fragile.

Future Minister?

7. (C) Democratic Change (CD) presidential candidate
Ricardo Martinelli -- currently leading the polls 10-12
points ahead of his closest challenger, governing Democratic
Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidate Balbina Herrera -- told
POLOCUNS and POLOFF on November 21 that Asvat, who has played
a major role in the opposition to the security laws (see
reftel A), was one of his leading candidates to lead the
security forces as Minister of Government and Justice should
he win the Presidential elections on May 3, 2009. Asvat was
the first director of the PNP following OPERATION JUST CAUSE
in 1989, and served briefly as Secretary of Goals under
President Torrijos. He is a partner in an international law
firm, and a graduate of Harvard University. Asvat is also
widely believed to want to be FM, and his name frequently is
included on short-lists for this job.


8. (C) Asvat is a strong supporter of Martinelli's
presidential campaign, and La Estrella has done its best to
clear the field for him. Having played a major role in
discrediting the present government's security reform, Asvat
now seems well placed to produce Martinelli's alternative
vision. While Martinelli has been preaching a "strong arm
(mano dura)" approach to repress crime largely to take
advantage of public concern over crime and to woo Navarro
supporters, Martinelli's posturing has to date had little
substance to it. Asvat's ideas seem directed towards actual
implementation, and not to the campaign trail. His analysis
of the administrative failings of the Panamanian security
services are similar to what members of the Torrijos
administrations and U.S. law enforcement agencies have said.
It remains to be seen if Asvat has the administrative skills
to pull off such a wide ranging reform. The undoing of the
Torrijos/DDD reforms would be traumatic, but Martinelli
himself has said that they must be reversed, and he has
signed a public document saying he would. Asvat's
recommendation that the fight against drug trafficking be
de-emphasized to concentrate on common crime in the cities
seems based the belief, common throughout the security
establishment, that Panama is using a large amount of its
resources fighting drug traffickers. This is not the case, as
Panama's great successes are based on U.S.-generated
intelligence and a small group of vetted officers. If Asvat
were named Minister of Government and Justice, and briefed on
the reality of U.S. drug cooperation, there is no reason to
believe he would cut back on cooperation, or that Martinelli
would let him.

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