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Cablegate: Confrontation with the Farc Rattles Gop

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S E C R E T PANAMA 000041

NOFORN
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 2035/02/01
TAGS: PTER SNAR PGOV PREL PM CO
SUBJECT: Confrontation with the FARC Rattles GOP

CLASSIFIED BY: Stephenson, AMB, State, FO; REASON: 1.4(B), (D)

Summary


1. (S//NF) Three members of the FARC were killed in Panama's
Darien province and two were captured on January 27, apparently
after a Panamanian National Frontier Service (SENAFRONT) patrol
stumbled upon the guerrillas traveling in a boat on the Tuira
river. Reports indicate the guerrillas opened fire after being
ordered to stop. One of those killed was mid-level commander Gaspar
Gonzalez, alias "Rene" or "Orejas", reportedly close to 57th Front
commander alias "Becerro." Some in the GOP appear to be rattled by
the encounter. Minister of the Presidency Demetrio "Jimmy"
Papadimitriu told the DCM January 28 that he did not have details
on what had happened, and played down the request for helicopter
support he had made the night before . Reinforcements are being
sent into the area, apparently in fear of a possible retaliatory
strike by the FARC. The GOP has strenuously denied reports in the
Colombian press that the GOP bombed a camp. Mitchel Doens,
Secretary General of the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party
(PRD) told reporters January 28 that he was afraid the incident was
part of a "hidden agenda" involving a pact with the Government of
Colombia that might compromise Panama's security. End Summary


Halt, who goes there!


2. (S//NF)) The incident took place on the Tuira River that runs
through the Darien National Forest near the border with Colombia.
The FARC 57th Front's Wilson Cordoba company, led by 57th Front
Commander alias "Becerro" has long been based in this area.
SENAFRONT has been carrying out a strategy for the last year, with
Embassy support, to cut off FARC supply routes, restricting the
amount of food that enters the area, and increasing patrols in
choke points to make it more difficult for the FARC to operate.
[Comment: It is the consensus view of Post Country Team that
SENAFRONT does not have enough men, training, equipment or
logistical capability to militarily confront the FARC, and that the
"harassment" strategy is the most forward leaning strategy that
SENAFRONT can maintain. End Comment.] Reports indicate this was a
routine patrol of approximately 30 men, who were following up on an
intelligence report on a nearby FARC camp. Reportedly the patrol
saw a boat on the river with six or seven armed persons on board,
and ordered the vessel to stop. When the FARC members opened fire
SENAFRONT returned fire, killing two and wounding three. One of the
wounded eventually died. There are reports that one person escaped.
The prisoners are being questioned by Panamanian authorities. The
SENAFRONT personnel involved in the incident had received SOUTHCOM
funded training by the Joint Planning and Assistance Team (JPAT),
including marksmanship training.


3. (S//NF) Rene, a very active mid-level commander, was very
close to Becerro, who played a key role in calming down members of
the FARC that called for revenge after a similar incident last year
in the Darien village of Manene. He has traditionally argued that
the FARC should not confront Panamanian security forces, and has
ordered the 57th Front to respect civilians and their property. It
remains to be seen if the death of Rene leads him to take a
different view of retaliation this time.


We were wondering . . .


4. (S//NF) The incident occurred at approximately 7:30 am. Over

twelve hours later Minister of the Presidency Jimmy Papadimitriu
called Post's ODC Chief to ask for helicopter lift support to bring
reinforcements into the Darien. When DCM called the next day and
asked for a readout on what had happened and exactly what kind of
support the GOP was requesting, Papadimitriu said he had "no idea"
what had happened, and minimized the previous day's request, saying
he had, "just been wondering if you had some helicopters." DCM
explained that all USG assets were tied up in Haiti, and pressed
the need for the GOP to put some real effort into security
planning. Papadimitriu said that it was time for the GOP to take
security seriously, and realize that it was expensive and they
would have to pay for it.


5. (S//NF) On February 1, SENAFRONT Deputy Director Christian
Hayer told Emboff that SENAFRONT had 800 men in the area, and that
they would begin pulling them back in one week. Embassy personnel
traveled to SENAFRONT HQ in Meteti, Darien on January 28 and
reported that SENAFRONT had cancelled all leaves, and the
SEAL-trained RECOM unit was seen mustering for deployment, while
buses of other SENAFRONT units headed east towards the border.
However, there was no sign of a logistics mobilization that would
allow the units to remain deployed for much more than a week.
Newspaper reports are stressing the fear of a retaliatory strike by
the FARC as the reason for the mobilization. The GOP has forbidden
land or air travel over the border region until Saturday, January
30.


Colombian angle


6. (U) Shortly after the incident Colombian President Alvaro
Uribe issued a statement from Davos, Switzerland thanking Panama
and President Martinelli for the "military" operation that killed
the three guerrillas. This was followed by a piece in the Colombian
newspaper El Espectador that said Panama had "bombed" a FARC camp,
citing Colombian Minister of Defense Gabriel Silva. Minister of
Government and Justice Jose Raul Mulino made several public
comments over the course of the day insisting that the encounter
had been fortuitous, and denying that Panama had planned the
operation ahead of time in any way with Colombia.


7. (U) PRDSecGen Mitchel Doens told reporters January 28 that
the incident was part of a secret agreement between Panama and
Colombia that could compromise Panama's security. He pointed to the
contradictory statements by leaders of the two countries, and
called them "suspicious," noting that Martinelli and Uribe had
recently met. He also highlighted Silva's reported statement that
Colombia would, "continue offering our cooperation . . . in the
campaign against the FARC."


Comment


8. (S//NF) All indications so far are that this incident was a
result of happenstance, and that SENAFRONT is not actively seeking
to engage the FARC. There does not appear to have been any change
in strategy or tactics with regard to the FARC by the GOP. The
President and many ministers are not in the country right now, and
senior government leaders seem to have been caught off guard by
the crisis. The major mobilization of SENAFRONT forces does not
appear to be well planned. While a FARC retaliation is possible, it
would be a major change in the FARC's modus operandi in Panama, and

would entail serious strategic risks. Any attack would likely be
against one of the many small isolated outposts throughout the
Darien.


9. (S//NF) Post has been pushing the GOP since Martinelli took
office to focus on security before the linked problems of the FARC,
narco-trafficking, growing gangs, and a rising murder rate began to
seriously damage Panama's reputation as a safe place to invest, and
eventually its stability itself. The solution is not just money:
it's organization and will to find competent leaders to begin to
reform and build solid security institution in the country.
STEPHENSON

=======================CABLE ENDS============================

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