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Column 091508 Brewer

Monday, September 15, 2008

Panama Must Remilitarize to Strengthen Regional Security

By Jerry Brewer

Panama's pivotal role within Latin America, as it pertains to its
homeland security, has now reached a crescendo. After all, the
unique geographical position of the isthmus nation makes it the
hub and gateway from South to Central America. The
importance, strategic location, and security of the Panama
Canal also call for critical attention.

The neutering of Panama's military and security forces nearly
two decades ago has ultimately unleashed a flood of criminal
insurgents into and traversing the country. Panama's
leadership must immediately focus their vision on regional
security issues, and quickly and clearly come into focus on a
proactive and aggressive homeland security posture. Avoiding
the issue and failing to address the security readiness and unity
of the democratic nation to adequately defend itself could result
in what Mexico is experiencing in its bloody military battle
against narcoterrorists and other criminal insurgents.

Leftist rulers and dictatorships within Latin America lose no
sleep over Mexico's battles against organized criminals for their
free nation. In fact, many proclaim that Mexico's troops are
losing the battle. It is clear that these state sponsors of
terrorism do not want democracies to win these battles for their
people, nor do they want the United States to lend a helping
hand with training, logistics, and technology.

Within the isthmus nation there are mixed emotions about
remilitarization, with some calling for a neutral stance with better
education, rehabilitation, delinquency, and lesser prevention
methods. The question that must be asked is, with Panama's
vast natural resources and global position of importance within
the Americas, how can they not have a strong military and
police presence to strategically defend the homeland? How can
this issue even remotely be described as "unwarranted"?

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas
are reported to be continuing to traverse Panama and trudging
into Central America. The insurgents have threatened to abduct
high profile Panamanian officials, this in retaliation for the
apprehension of rebels by authorities. The guerrilla insurgents
continue to move north in support of narcotrafficking, arms
sales, and other criminal enterprises.

Panama's dilemma has been the absence of an army on its soil.
Nearly two decades ago the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF)
was disbanded. Many of the PDF troops were transitioned into
the police ranks.

President Martin Torrijos is looking to remilitarize the country,
and to create a much needed proactive and strategic
intelligence apparatus in this new millennium. These being
needed reforms in order to discover and assess an incredible
number of modern day regional threats, including of course
those that are mounting via leftist rhetoric. Too, terrorist
radicalization, as well as violent gang proliferation, should be
top collection efforts of their intelligence service. The "National
Intelligence Security Service" (SENIS) will require adequate
oversight and safeguards to ensure that proper accountability
measures remain in place and that abuses are not tolerated.
These measures could soften the concerns of a homeland that
has seen abuses, yet knowing that anticrime and
counterterrorism initiatives must be a top priority for Panama.

The magnitude of gang warfare by organized criminals in
Panama alone warrants these actions. It is a countrywide
epidemic. Too, criminal insurgents such as FARC, terrorists,
and other organized criminals have little respect for Panama's
current weak security structure. A national police force is not
enough. The reality of the current situation on the ground in
Panama is that the country is a hub of international
narcotraffickers, paramilitary/rebel insurgents, and other
criminal groups taking advantage of the security weaknesses,
illicit arms trade, relaxed banking rules, as well as Panama's
booming economy.

The security reform package that President Torrijos proposes to
curb the present domestic instability is a difficult but prudent
request. Budgetary issues and logistic concerns are stark
realities of feasibility. Necessary training also becomes a major
component in the construction of the security package. The
U.S. Southern Command, that is taking many strategic and
tactical initiatives throughout the Americas, has "promoted the
idea of a new Panamanian military." A key concern would be
the placing of new "forward operating areas" for joint security
operational acts of free Latin American nations. This in
response to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa's decision not
to renew the lease for the U.S. base in Manta.

Joint operations with Panama and the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration have been successful in the past, with a seizure
of 20 tons of cocaine off of the Panamanian coastline last year.
Panama's coastlines are vast areas of over 78,000 square
kilometers, as well as a border with Colombia of 225 kilometers.

Panama must have more than routine policing protection.

Jerry Brewer is Vice President of Criminal Justice International
Associates, a global risk mitigation firm headquartered in Miami,