A series of WikiLeaks cables paints a grim picture of Panama’s capacity to respond to the increasingly aggressive FARC rebels, who have found refuge in the swamps and jungles across the border.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) have long used Panama's Darien region as a rest and recuperation area. Believed to number no more than 180 rebels, the 57th Front is among the wealthiest in the FARC, thanks to their control of the drug trade and smuggling along the remote Darien coastline.
As is the case with Ecuador and Venezuela, the FARC have moved their drug-trafficking operations and their logistical networks into Panama, after being pushed to the edges of Colombia. On April 4, Panama's border police reported finding a camp just five miles inside of Panamanian territory, capable of housing up to 60 guerrillas. These kinds of large camps, still prevalent in the border states, are becoming increasingly rare in Colombia, where the guerrilla are forced to move in smaller and more dispersed groups.
An analysis of several U.S. State Department cables, dated between 2009 and 2010, sheds light on why the 57th Front has been able to entrench themselves so successfully in the Darien. Repeatedly, the cables make reference to Panama's lack of operational capacity to simply respond to reports of FARC actions in time, as well as Panama's reported reluctance to fully enlist support from the U.S.
According to one cable, dated December 7, 2009, Minister of Justice Dilio Arcia complains that Panamanian police lack the mobility to quickly respond to FARC actions. Panama has no military, and the border police, known as SENAFRONT, can only arrive to Darien's vast jungle and swamplands via boat or helicopter lift. In another cable, dated January 5, 2009, then-Vice President Samuel Lewis asks the U.S. Embassy to provide more technological support to Panamanian forces, including night vision goggles. What emerges is a picture of the SENAFRONT as slow-moving and under-equipped to properly deal with the 57th Front.
This same cable also describes the Front's apparent successful takeover of an indigenous town in the Darien, causing the displacement of 200 members of the Embera tribe in December 2008. "SENAFRONT could not send its police officers in to meet what appeared to have been a large and well armed force," the cable says, noting that the rebels were carrying sophisticated satellite technology. The cable adds that although the 57th Front reportedly stayed in the town for 10 days, unable to pass through tricky mountaineous terrain, the border police arrived on the scene only after the FARC had left.
The SENAFRONT was created in 2008 and thus far has been unable to properly patrol the Colombia border, and are frequently called back to Panama City in order to provide support for urban police, another cable states. Like its other Central American neighbors, Panama is seeing an uptick in homicides, gang activity and micro-trafficking, all security issues that have distracted resources from the border. This, in part, has also allowed the 57th Front to fully exploit the Darien's unpenetrable territory, taxing all contraband goods that move through the region and coordinating the export of narcotics.
The WikiLeaks cables also shed light on Panama's alleged reluctance, at times, to fully collaborate with or accept support from the U.S. One cable discusses Panama's efforts to pass legislation that would make it illegal for federal employees to receive payments from foreign governments, essentially making it impossible for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents to pay their local support units.
The proposed legislation did not pass, but, as noted in another cable, dated December 17, 2009, there have been other cases of the Panamanian government dragging its feet. The cable describes one proposal, in which U.S. Naval forces would better support patrols along the Darien coast. According to the cable, after two months of dicussions, the plan fizzled.
Panama's inaction towards the Darien is partly explained by worsening urban security and gang activity, which is distracting resources, the cable says, adding, "This creates a situation where the Embassy makes bold and tactical proposals, that often end up getting diluted and/or modified as the Government of Panama (GOP) attempts to execute."
Panama has seen several successes against the 57th Front, including the death of Front commander Luis Mora Pestaña, alias “Silver,” in a bombing raid on October 2010. But Panama has been forced to step up actions against the 57th Front partly because of the unit's increased activity, including forcibly recruiting indigenous tribes like the Embera, planting landmines, and kidnapping. The Front has been blamed for the kidnapping of Cuban-American businessman Cecilio Padron in 2008, resulting in the extradition of one alleged rebel commander to the U.S.
Panama has carried out significant actions against the 57th Front, but, as indicated by the WikiLeaks cables, the risk is that lack of resources, the distraction of worsening urban crime, and sensitivity to U.S. involvement may continue to hinder efforts to dislodge the Colombian rebels. In one promising sign, Panama signed a border security pact with Colombia this year, which could lead to an increase in joint operations along the frontier. For years, Panama refused to see the FARC issue as a national security problem: the question now is whether it is too late.