Cablegate: Plans to Establish Four Maritime Operations Centers


DE RUEHZP #0829/01 3132328
R 092328Z NOV 09

.C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 000829


E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/09/2024

CLASSIFIED BY: Debra L. Hevia, Political Counselor, State, POL;
REASON: 1.4(B), (D)

1. (C) Summary: Minister of Government and Justice Jose Raul Mulino
announced in late October that the GOP intended to establish four
maritime operating centers to interdict narcotics and other illegal
items transiting Panamanian waters. The operation centers would be
jointly manned by security forces from the Panamanian National
Police (PNP), National Aero-Naval Service (SENAN), and National
Frontier Service (SENAFRONT). The idea for a joint maritime task
force incorporating various Panamanian security services originated
in the U.S. Embassy's Law Enforcement and Security Working Group as
a possible solution to a FARC drug trafficking organization
operating on the Pacific Coast. When the Ambassador suggested the
idea to Mulino and Vice President/Foreign Minister Juan Carlos
Varela, both were enthusiastic. However, Mulino later muddled the
issue in a premature and incorrect announcement of joint "bases"
which implied they would be U.S.-Panamanian bases, sparking an
outcry. Mulino and the service chiefs have now taken the original
idea and expanded it to four potential locations. However, the GOP
has not yet named a commanding officer or dedicated any specific
resources to the idea, leaving us with the impression that it may
have become too diluted to achieve the desired quick results. As
we move forward, we must proceed cautiously with our support to
avoid feeding the debate currently underway about U.S. attempts to
re-militarize Panama. End summary.

Background and History


2. (C) Panama's territorial waters are one of the main trafficking
routes in Central America, with recent estimates indicating that
2009 saw three times as much cocaine moving through Panama than in
2008, or more than 25% of all cocaine reaching Mexico transiting
through Panama's waters. Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs)
move drugs on short hops, requiring a sophisticated network of
lookouts, refueling stations, and logistical support as loads are
moved on to land and back to water. The network is resulting in
rampant corruption and a spiraling violent crime rate. The GOP
realizes it is losing control.

3. (C) One of the reasons the problem has grown is that the former
National Maritime Service (SMN) was at best ineffective, and at
worst actively collaborated with drug traffickers, since the time
when Ricky Traad was its director (Sept 2004-March 2007). In
addition to Traad's own crimes, for which he is being tried, Traad
allowed corruption to invade most of the officer corps and the
institution in general. As a result of SMN's manifest failure to
confront drug trafficking, the Embassy's Narcotics Affairs Section
(NAS) helped the PNP create its own maritime law enforcement unit,
the Unidad de Mantenamiento y Operaciones Fluvial (UMOF). This unit
has been Panama's most successful maritime law enforcement unit for
the last several years. However, the UMOF was always a stopgap
solution, and it has no real growth potential because the police
lack the ability to develop a long, successive line of boat
operators and unit Commanders. Interpreting their area of
responsibility as including the coastal waters, National Frontier
Service (SENAFRONT) also began developing a maritime capability to
help patrol the coasts of the Darien and Kuna Yala provinces and
the Darien river systems.

4. (C) As part of the security reforms instituted by former
President Martin Torrijos, SMN was combined with the National Air
Service (SAN) to form the National Aeronaval Service (SENAN) in
late 2008. Former head of SAN Rigoberto Gordon was named the first
Director of SENAN. By empowering a small group of like-minded
officers, limiting the flow of information, and exercising tight
control over the SENAN's most effective interceptor boats and

crews, Gordon and his deputy Commissioner Juan Vergara created a
limited response capability within the SENAN that had not
previously existed. After no seizures in the previous three years,
the SENAN has seized over 4 tons of cocaine in the last year, and
begun to build up its ability to effectively cooperate with U.S.
maritime interdiction vessels.

Present Situation


5. (C) Despite these improvements, Panama has a weak maritime
counter-narcotics response capability throughout the country. Most
maritime assets are based in the Vasquez Nunez de Balboa (VNB)
Naval base in Panama City, several hours away from any likely drug
trafficking contact in the Pacific. Panama's Caribbean waters are
basically undefended. U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships on
counter-narcotics missions patrol the waters around Panama, but to
be truly effective, these ships need Panamanian interceptor boats
to work with them. In addition, as a response to the U.S. presence
off the Darien's Pacific coast, traffickers have begun to use slow
moving "pangas" traveling very close to shore. The only way to cut
this route is by putting Panamanian assets out to patrol close to
shore and to board and search these vessels. Currently, none of
the three police forces coordinate their patrolling or maintain
tactical communication. It is vital to create a mechanism to
coordinate the actions of the three forces, especially off Darien's
Pacific coast.

Embassy Proposal


6. (C) Based on our on-going security dialogue with the new
Panamanian administration and our united assessment of the urgency
of the trafficking problem along the Darien Pacific coast, an
Embassy team developed the idea of a 100 percent Panamanian joint
maritime task force (JTF). The original proposal suggested the JTF
would consist of the three Panamanian security forces with an
operations center in Puerto Pinas, Darien. By concentrating
Panama's resources in one strategic area, the goal was to cut off
the route through Panama's territorial waters between Colombia and
Panama City. This would have the simultaneous effect of weakening
the FARC in the Darien, which controls this route, and decreasing
gang activity that feeds off drug trafficking in the greater-Panama
City area. The project aimed to create a model JTF that could be
replicated according to the evolution of drug trafficking patterns.
The U.S. could provide logistical and training assistance through
our regular NAS and SOUTHCOM funding streams and programs. The
non-paper describing how the JTF might work was passed around
enthusiastically at the top levels of the GOP.

Controversy Arises


7. (C) On September 26, while President Martinelli and Vice
President/Foreign Minister Varela were in New York City meeting
with Secretary Clinton on the margins of UNGA, MOGJ Mulino made a
public appearance in Panama in which he mentioned "joint maritime
bases," "international cooperation," and "United States" in the
same sentence. At the time, the Defense Cooperation Agreement
between Colombia and the U.S. was hotly debated in Latin America,
and Mulino's off-the-cuff comments resulted immediately in press
articles and op-eds decrying U.S. plans to re-establish our
military presence in Panama. Although VP/FM Varela publicly
clarified that the "joint" in JTF meant various Panamanian security
forces, the suspicion that the U.S. seeks to establish bases here
persists in journalistic, academic, and civic society circles.
Therefore, both the Embassy and the GOP have sought to keep the
planning low-profile. Nonetheless, we continued collaborating on
the idea of a 30-man JTF housed in Puerto Pinas, which could be
stood up relatively quickly with existing resources once the
commanding officer and personnel were designated by the GOP.

Cooperation Agreement Between PNP, SENAN and SENAFRONT

--------------------------------------------- ----------------------

8. (C) The Embassy continued encouraging MOGJ Mulino to work on a
document that would establish the Puerto Pinas JTF, and on October
26 he announced to the press that the PNP, SENAFRONT, and SENAN had
signed a cooperation agreement, which would allow the GOP to
establish four joint aero-maritime operations centers to combat
drug trafficking, arms trafficking, alien smuggling, and
trafficking in persons in Panamanian waters and along coastlines.
The four sites included:

--Puerto Pinas in Darien;

--Punto Coco, on the Pearl Islands (previously identified by the
USG as a good forward operations site);

--Chapera, another of the Pearl Islands, which is embroiled in
ownership controversy and which the USG therefore could not
support, and whose proximity to Punto Coco calls its strategic
value into question; and

--Rambala, in Chiriqui Grande on the Caribbean coast, where a
previous agreement with a private oil company already allows the
GOP use of a dock and other facilities.

9. (U) Mulino's announcement resulted in another press round of
anti-GOP and anti-U.S. articles. During a November 2 All Saints'
Day commemorative event hosted by the president of Panama City's
municipal council, keynote speaker Julio Yao, a foreign affairs
professor at the University of Panama, lambasted the GOP for its
intentions to install "bases" with U.S. support and violate
Panama's sovereignty. VP/FM Varela interrupted his speech to
demand that he show some respect to President Martinelli and not
distort the true intent of the government's plan.

Comment: Going Forward


10. (C) The agreement among the security forces, while a step
forward, does not bring the GOP much closer to getting the JTF at
Puerto Pinas up and running. Mulino must still designate a
commanding officer and ensure forces are seconded to the unit. The
public controversy is not the only hurdle to overcome, as it now
appears that support for the idea, and for Mulino himself, may be
waning in the GOP. VP/FM Varela told the Ambassador October 23
that the GOP planned to split the existing MOGJ into two
ministries, one handling security issues and the other government
services such as the post offices; Mulino would get the less
glamorous portfolio. Minister of the Presidency Jimmy Papadimitriu
told press at an independence day event on November 3 that he did
not agree with Mulino's "patchwork approach" to security, adding,
"Neither bases, nor police, nor prisons will solve the security
problem....I don't know if the government shares my view, but it is

my personal opinion." He also said that a group specialized in
security issues was evaluating the situation, probably referring to
the Israeli firm Global CST (septel).

11. (C) The Embassy still fully supports implementation of the JTF
model in Puerto Pinas, and is standing by to help with training and
logistical support, including construction of a dock, operations
center, and barracks if necessary. However, the USG must approach
the issue with care, making sure it is seen as a Panamanian
initiative and has full Panamanian ownership, and does not become a
lightning rod for further accusations that the U.S. has military
intentions toward Panama.

© Scoop Media

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