Cablegate: Panama's New Administration Scores Record Cocaine

Published: Fri 15 Oct 2004 08:27 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 PANAMA 002553
E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/22/2014
Classified By: Charge Chris McMullen for reasons 1.5 (b) and (d).
1. (C) Panamanian Public Forces and Embassy Officers
contributed to record detainee transfers and cocaine captures
in recent weeks, as part of on-going counter-drug Operation
Panama Express task force operations. On September 21,
Panama National Maritime Service (SMN) marines, Panamanian
Public Forces (PPF) members, and EmbOffs transferred 19
Colombian detainees and evidentiary cocaine from a 14.5 ton
high-seas seizure to an awaiting USG aircraft at Tocumen
International Airport. On October 4, EmbOffs joined the PPF
for another transfer of 16 Colombians from a 12.5 ton cocaine
seizure. In total the two operations reaped 35 detainees and
27 tons of cocaine. Each prisoner transfer operation saves
the USG approximately $1M. The seizures and prisoner
transfers show that the new government (GOP) is cracking down
on transnational crime and continuing close cooperation with
U.S. law enforcement units. End Summary.
2. (C) On September 21 and again on October 4, U.S. Embassy
Panama's officers assisted Panamanian Public Forces in
transferring 35 Colombian detainees, drug and non-drug
evidence, part of two cocaine seizures totaling 27 tons, from
Coast Guard cutters to awaiting USG aircraft at Tocumen
International Airport. These operations were made possible
by the Salas-Becker shipriders agreement and comprise part of
an on-going counter-drug task force, called Operation Panama
Express based out of Tampa, Florida. Panamanian National
Maritime Service (SMN) marines armed with AK-47s along with
Panamanian National Police (PNP) escorts guarded the
detainees throughout their short time in Panama. During the
September 21 operation, an SMN patrol boat towed the
unflagged freighter, Lina Maria, which had been captured near
the Galapagos Islands, into port near the Canal Entrance
(former Rodman Naval Base). Coast Guard law enforcement
teams discovered 14.5 tons of cocaine concealed in a sealed
ballast tank. Once the cocaine was removed, the Lina Maria
listed heavily to one side, complicating the tow. The
seasoned SMN sailors and marines made the operation appear
3. (U) Marking the 38th transfer conducted in Panama since
the Salas-Becker Bilateral Agreement took effect in 2002,
which details cooperation between the U.S. Coast Guard and
the GOP,s SMN. These transfers account for more than 350
detainees and drug seizures, most involving cocaine. Prior
to the Salas-Becker Bilateral Agreement and others like it in
Guatemala and Nicaragua, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard
transited prisoners to the U.S. via ship. The International
Maritime Interdiction Support (IMIS) clause of the
Salas-Becker accord details the protocols for detainee
transfers and keeps USG ships in the transit zone,
subsequently saving U.S. taxpayers an estimated $1M in
operating costs for each operation.
4. (C) Lt. Angel Franco, the team leader for the Panamanian
Maritime Marines told PolOff that the Panamanian Public
Forces enjoy supporting counter-drug operations, but worry
about increased illicit drug and arms trafficking in Panama.
(Note: Recently, the PNP seized a fishing boat with 36
high-caliber weapons, including 33 AK-47s and ample munitions
believed to be en route to the FARC. Emb will report in
SepTel. End Note). SMN marines told PolOff the problem is
clearly transnational, bragging (inaccurately) that "not one
Panamanian has ever been arrested for drug trafficking." The
SMN marines compared themselves to U.S. Marines and presented
themselves as part of the U.S. drug enforcement effort. Lt.
Franco pointed out some of the limitations of the Panamanian
marine team in that each one earns about $300 monthly before
taxes, and each must pay for uniforms, radios and personal
equipment. He noted that while motivated, his colleagues are
often under-equipped and SMN patrol boats frequently cannot
respond due to lack of fuel. Despite these shortages, he
said, the SMN sees counter-drug operations as an assault on a
scourge affecting both the USG and GOP, but one which for
them, hits closer to home. The new Torrijos government has
continued seamless support for counter-drug operations which
cost them fuel and human resources that are in critically
short supply.
5. (C) Panama PPF conduct detainee transfers with
professionalism and little fanfare. They have been well
trained. Embassy has used IMET funds to train SMN Marines in
the U.S. Also, U.S. military experts provide frequent
training sessions locally via ODC, NAS or DHS (CG/ICE). This
breadth of training is now paying big dividends as visiting
USG teams often comment on the PPF,s high level of
proficiency and law enforcement knowledge. Law enforcement
officials working in Panama enjoy the close proximity between
the SMN base (former Rodman Naval Base) and Tocumen
International Airport. Continuous governmental support and
the professionalism of the public forces contribute greatly
to the success of this on-going counter-drug operations.
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