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Cablegate: The Gang Threat On Panama's Costa Rican Border


DE RUEHZP #0625/01 2291909
R 171909Z AUG 09

S E C R E T PANAMA 000625


E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/21/2019




1. (S//NF) The border between Panama and Costa Rica has
been described as a "no mans' land", where drugs flow across
into Costa Rica and guns and money flow back into Panama.
With parallel roads along either side of the border, over 200
possible crossing points, a free trade zone town sitting on
the border itself, and chaotic and corrupt security agencies
on the Panamanian side, it is virtually impossible to control
the border itself. This wide open border has led to the
growth of an important gun market on the Costa Rican side of
the border which supplies the FARC, DTOs and local gangs with
weapons, while large amounts of drugs and cash flow across
the border. It has also created an "undergoverned space" that
Central American and Mexican gangs may be exploiting to lay
low and build a new base of operations. Panama's National
Frontier Service (SENAFRONT) reports an increase in
assassinations in the area, which has traditionally been
largely free of violent crime. The National Aero-Naval
Service (SENAN) believes that recent maritime interdiction
efforts may be forcing traffickers to move loads to land and
take them through Panama on the Pan-American Highway, and
across the border into Costa Rica. Post is concerned that an
increase in overland drug and arms trafficking may further
destabilize Panama and the other Central American nations.
This is the exact opposite result than was intended when the
strategy to increase maritime pressure was implemented (see
reftel). Post is further concerned that incremental attempts
to increase law enforcement pressure on the land route may
lead the Mexican, Central American or Colombian DTOs to move
to take control of the border through increased acts of
violence to ensure their control over the route.

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2. (S//NF) Post will work with the GOP to design a law
enforcement strategy for the border area to disrupt the land
trafficking routes, and so discourage the cartels from trying
to gain control of the area. Law Enforcement agencies at Post
are redirecting assets to the Costa Rican border, and NAS is
proposing the expansion of the ICE vetted unit so that part
of it can be turned over to the Panamanian National Police
(PNP) as a major crimes unit that can concentrate on the
Costa Rican border area, where local police units are highly
corrupt. Post will also work with PNP to develop an effective
highway patrol force to interdict drugs throughout the
Pan-American highway, and move maritime assets to cut off
maritime-land transfer points along the coast. As the
Department determines Merida Initiative funding and
allocations for the next year, Post encourages all concerned
to direct as much support as possible into flexible NAS and
USAID funding that can be used to respond to emerging threats
in a creative and flexible manner. End Summary.

The Virtual Border

3. (S//NF) The Panama-Costa Rica border is described by
CBP, ICE, DEA and NAS personnel as a "joke." Panamanian
Minister of Government and Justice Jose Raul Mulino told
Charge July 24 that the border area was a "no man's land"
without effective GOP control. There is virtually no control
over people or goods flowing across the border due to two
factors. First, at the main international crossing point on
the Pan-American Highway at Paso Canoas, there is a small
Free Trade Zone (FTZ) sitting directly on the border. Mostly
controlled by Palestinian families linked to relatives in the
Colon Free Trade Zone, this FTZ is not in and of itself of
great concern to law enforcement, though some of the
businesses are involved in money laundering and smuggling.
Rather, the very existence of the FTZ renders the border
ineffective, as there are houses and businesses with one door
in one country, and another door in the other. People wander
in and out of the two countries as they shop. In order not to
disrupt a local generator of wealth, officials in both Costa
Rica and Panama have adopted laissez faire customs and
immigration policies to accommodate the FTZ. The second
factor is the existence of parallel roads on either side of
the border from the Pacific to the top of the Talamanca
mountain chain that runs through the two countries. In
Panama, this corresponds to the province of Chiriqui, long a
laid back agricultural area. The presence of the parallel
roads on either side of the border, with over 200 crossing
points between them, means that there is no way to
effectively control the cross border traffic in people or
goods at the border. Post believes that Panama must move to a
U.S. Border Patrol-style mobile patrol doctrine to control
the goods and people following into Panama from Costa Rica.
To that end, NAS has been sponsoring periodic deployments of
U.S. Border Patrol agents to Chiriqui to help train the
SENAFRONT police who patrol the area.

Ingrained Corruption

4. (S//NF) Adding to the difficulties of controlling the
Costa Rican border, Post has credible information that the
Panamanian National Police (PNP) commander for the Chiriqui
province, Sub-Commissioner Bartolome Aguero, is himself
working with criminal networks in Panama. Aguero is
reportedly a member of a network of corrupt officers at the
sub-commissioner rank in the PNP. PNP Director Gustavo Perez
told POLOFF and NAS July 23 that the PNP had a corruption
problem at "very high levels" in Chiriqui, and that he was
examining how to deal with it. Even if Aguero is relieved of
his command, the PNP upper ranks in the province are probably
also tainted, and cleaning up the police force in the region
will take time, and probably lead to a period of lower
operational efficiency. At the same time, members of the
SENAFRONT deployed on the Costa Rican border are reluctant to
search vehicles for fear of uncovering criminal acts linked
to powerful local or national politicians, according to PNP
sources in Chiriqui. Several of the local criminal networks
are led by local elected politicians, who traffic drugs and
weapons in vehicles with official license plates. While
SENAFRONT officers are generally more dedicated and honest
than PNP officers in Chiriqui, their institution is focused
on securing the Darien Province on the other end of Panama
from the FARC and Colombian DTOs, and the officers on the
Costa Rican border have not felt, up to now, that they had
high level support to confront entrenched corruption among
politicians. There is also considerable corruption among
officers of the National Immigration Service (SNM) and the
National Customs Authority (ANA) throughout Panama, meaning
that governmental institutions are disinclined to work
together because they cannot be sure if their colleagues from
other institutions are honest or corrupt. This fact has
undermined the effectiveness of the NAS-funded and
CBP-assisted Guabala checkpoint on the Pan-American Highway
in eastern Chiriqui, which is the last real checkpoint on the
highway before the border. The checkpoint has highlighted the
difficulty of controlling smuggling in the area through fixed
checkpoints, as new roads quickly sprouted up around it
allowing vehicles to circumvent the checkpoint.

The Mexicans are Coming!

5. (S//NF) DEA, NAS and other agencies at Post report that
there is a growing presence of Mexicans near the Costa Rican
border. However, they also report that the presence is not
yet massive, nor are there signs that one particular cartel
is dominating the market. One member of MS-13 has been
identified on the border, and there are reports that up to
ten MS-13 members are in the area. It is not clear if the
Mexicans and Central American gangs are using the area to
hide out (some are reportedly prison escapees from Honduras),
or if they are setting up operations in the area. Their
presence on the border, however, coincides with an increase
in violence, including horrific murders of a kind associated
with Mexican and Central American gangs. SENAFRONT Deputy
Commander Commissioner Cristian Hayer told PolOff July 24
that there had been ten executions in the area this year,
where previously there had been none. He speculated they
could be a result of score settling, or attempts to rob drug
shipments. The up-tick in violence, and the Mexican and
Central American presence near the border have drawn
attention to Panama's vulnerability to these gangs should
they eventually decide to move decisively into the area. With
U.S. and Panamanian security assets mostly concentrated on
the drug trafficking problem in Panama City, the Darien, and
Panama's territorial waters, the Costa Rican border is
Panama's unguarded back door.

Drugs, Guns and Money

6. (S//NF) Adding to Post's concern over the Costa Rican
border is the possibility that overland traffic is becoming
more important. SENAN Deputy Director Commissioner Juan
Vergara told PolOff July 17 that as a result of recent
increased pressure by U.S. and Panamanian maritime assets in
Panama's territorial waters (see reftel), there had been an
increase in the number of go-fast vessels making short trips
up from Colombia to the Gulf of San Miguel in the Darien, and
transferring their drug loads onto vehicles for shipment
through Panama and across the border by road. Post's TAT and
DEA/TAT Cartegena have also reported that Colombian drug
traffickers have shifted their tactics in response to the
added pressure, and are now taking a shore-hugging route at
low speed, and transferring their loads to the road as soon
as possible. Post TAT has also noted that some maritime
trafficking routes end off the coast of Chiriqui, where loads
are transferred to the Pan-American Highway at one of several
small isolated landings within a short distance of the
highway. In one case, a go-fast loaded with cocaine from the
FARC 57th Front was loaded directly on to a truck before
being seized by police. In the last month DEA has had several
multi-ton land seizures from tractor trailers traveling on
the Pan-American Highway. If this trend is confirmed, the
border area would emerge as a strategic choke point in the
drug trade. Panamanian attempts to suppress this route might
then be expected to bring about a violent response, and to
encourage Mexican, Central American or Colombian
gangs/cartels to move aggressively to control the area and
resist Panamanian efforts.

7. (S//NF) Javier Fletcher, former Deputy Secretary General
of the National Intelligence and Security Service (SENIS)
told PolOff June 11 that the Costa Rican side of the border
functioned as a weapons super market for Drug Trafficking
Organizations (DTOs), the FARC and other illegal armed groups
in Panama and Colombia. He said buyers in Panama could
approach agents of weapons dealers in David, the capital of
Chiriqui, or at pre-identified locations along the border,
indicate the weapons they were interested in, examine
representative samples, and if they were satisfied, place
their orders. Agencies at Post concur with this assessment,
and add that the weapons are then delivered to buyers via
local smuggling organizations. Small shipments may be handled
by one of the 30 small Panamanian gangs operating in the
area, while larger shipments are brought over by established
smuggling networks, which are usually Panamanian-Colombian in
their make up, and often have local political ties. SENAFRONT
estimates that $10-20 million in cash may pass across the
border to Panama every month as repatriated drug profits, but
Post cannot confirm the number.

Law Enforcement Strategy

8. (S//NF) Post believes that the reason the Mexican
cartels and Central American gangs have not moved in force to
take control of the Panamanian-Costa Rican border area has
been that the guns, drugs and money are flowing so freely,
that it is not necessary at this time. Post also believes
that if they were to move into the area, the Panamanian law
enforcement agencies would stand no chance against them, due
to their poor morale, pay, and training, in addition to their
relative lack of highly trained tactical units, body armor,
or armored vehicles. However, allowing the Pan-American
Highway land route to absorb ever greater volumes of drug
trafficking threatens the stability of Central America, as it
brings with it an even greater logistical support structure
that strengthens the corruption, gangs and violence that
threaten the region.

9. (S//NF) Post believes that it is essential to launch a
comprehensive and synchronized campaign to strengthen the
GOP's ability to control this area immediately, in an attempt
to reduce its relative importance in the Central American
transit corridor before it attracts the attention of the
major cartels. To this end, NAS proposes to expand the size
of the recently created ICE vetted unit in the PNP by 25 men,
and to place part of this group under the control of PNP
Director Gustavo Perez and his deputy, Jaime Ruiz. Such a
unit, operating out of Panama City, would be used to
intercept drug and weapons shipments discovered by PNP
intelligence units without having to share the information
with local PNP units penetrated by drug-traffickers. This
unit would be protected by PNP and SENAFRONT tactical units,
to dissuade acts of intimidatory violence on the part of
Panamanian, Mexican and Central American gangs present in the
area. Post will also encourage the PNP to increase the mobile
patrolling of the Pan-American Highway to reduce the
effectiveness of the land route. Post is also discussing with
the MOGJ the possibility of creating a counter-narcotics
maritime task force by combining SENAN assets with the
NAS-supported PNP maritime unit, the UMOF. This would
centralize Panama's maritime counter-narcotics assets, and
allow Panama to attempt to block the maritime access routes
to the Pan-American Highway in Chiriqui, which would help
relieve pressure on the area, and reduce its attractiveness
to Mexican cartels. Taking advantage of the desire of the new
leadership in the SNM and ANA, Post's CBP and ICE offices
will also work to set up establish units that can work with
the police and help establish an effective border control
system. Post's DEA office is also planning to increase the
size of its highly successful Sensitive Investigative Unit
(SIU) and increase its coverage of Chiriqui.

Merida Initiative Support

10. (S//NF) As Post moves forward with this flexible
inter-agency strategy to suppress land-based trafficking in
drugs and weapons in Panama and on the Costa Rican border, we
request that the Department exert efforts in the Central
American Security Initiative budget process to direct as much
support as possible to NAS in the form of flexible funds that
can be used to fund creative responses to a rapidly evolving
security situation. NAS funds have been critical in
developing Post's extremely successful Community Policing
Strategy, which has been wholeheartedly adopted by the new
PNP leadership under Director Perez. NAS has also been a
leader at Post in focusing on the problems on the Costa Rican
border. But earmarked funds from Washington do not allow Post
to quickly react to a shifting threat, or to rapidly move to
support a good idea, or to abandon one that is not taking

Anti-Gang Programming

11. (S//NF) Recent reports from the PNP and local contacts
also indicate a significant increase in gang activity along
the Panamanian highway west from Santiago, in Veraguas, to
the Costa Rican border. Some of these gangs may be linked to
gangs in Panama City, indicating a disturbing trend towards
national gangs. To respond to the increased gang activity in
these non-traditional areas, USAID proposes expanding the
scope of the USAID Merida-funded gang-prevention program. The
USAID program focuses on the role of the community and
broader civil society in preventing and mitigating youth
violence, and strengthening coordination of government and
non-government actors to provide expanded positive
alternatives for youth. The USAID approach works closely
with key government counterparts, notably the Ministry of
Social Development and the PNP, in order to provide improved
and coordinated multi-sectoral responses, while engaging a
network of private sector entities and community groups to
take a proactive role in providing expanded alternatives for
young people while simultaneously fostering a demand for
improved services from government entities.

Increased Manpower

12. (S//NF) Post would also strongly encourage increased
staffing of its DEA, TAT and ICE offices. Among the most
efficient in the region, these offices need more staff to
apply sufficient pressure on the Costa Rican border area
while maintaining pressure on the maritime routes. The
successful implementation of this strategy would also relieve
drug trafficking pressure on other Central American
countries, and disrupt FARC drug and weapons trafficking to
and from Colombia.


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