President Juan Carlos Varela of Panama visited Washington, DC this week, where he presented development-focused proposals for dealing with security challenges in Central America that differed sharply from the enforcement-centric approach proposed by the administration of US President Donald Trump days earlier.
Trump and Varela agreed on June 19 to strengthen efforts to stymie increased drug production and confront regional challenges to governability and security as “shared priorities” for the two nations, according to a press release from the US embassy in Panama.
“We face the same problems in the region, so the idea of this visit is to work more closely together,” said Varela in comments reported by the Associated Press.
The presidential reunion was the first of a weeklong Panamanian delegation in Washington, where Varela — accompanied by Panama’s vice president, national security council director, and security minister — also met with US Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, and Chuck Rosenberg, the acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
During meetings with Central American leaders in Miami on June 15 and 16, US Vice President Mike Pence laid out a policy vision that emphasized a stronger law enforcement response to crime and violence in the region. However, during his visit this week, Varela repeatedly highlighted economic growth and development as key aspects of solving regional security challenges.
“Criminality in the region is not an issue that can be resolved with police alone; we must also reduce inequality,” Varela insisted at a June 21 conference hosted by the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
“Bringing development, economic growth, and stability in the Northern Triangle is a challenge we share with the US,” Varela said. “The best solution is investing in the private sector and creating jobs.”
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The contradiction between the Trump administration’s apparent intention to support heavy-handed security policies in Central America and the emphasis Varela placed on so-called “soft side” approaches raises questions about the future of US-Panama cooperation on crime and security issues.
As a geographic nexus between South American cocaine production sites and Central American trafficking routes, Panama has long figured prominently in regional efforts to combat drug trafficking in the Northern Triangle. Varela himself seemed poised to adhere to Trump’s tactic of fighting drug cartels with a firmer fist when his government announced in April increased deployment of security forces in the city of Colón, signaling a transition from a softer, less punitive approach on organized crime to more heavy-handed measures.
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Still, it remains to be seen how Varela will reconcile his simultaneous calls for economic development with his agreement to amplify anti-drug and security programs in cooperation with the Trump administration.
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