Cablegate: Panama: Leaders Grapple with Security Reforms

Published: Tue 12 Aug 2008 09:02 PM
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1. (C) GOP and opposition leaders are aggressively reaching
out to Post to brief their views on the Torrijos
Administration's security reform legislation package as well
as to gauge USG reactions and interests. At President
Torrijos urging following the Ambassador's presentation of
credentials (REFTEL), First VP and FM Samuel Lewis and
Minister of Government and Justice Daniel Delgado briefed
Ambassador on the security reform package on August 8.
Additionally, Ambassador engaged with Lewis on this topic
(and others) during their August 10 visit to Lewis' Contadora
Island home. Opposition leaders -- mostly critical of these
proposals, but all suspicious of the Torrijos
Administration's motives -- are reaching out to determine the
degree to which the USG was involved in crafting this
legislative packages. On August 9, Democratic Change (CD)
presidential candidate Ricardo Martinelli's lead advisor
Jimmy Papadimitriu sought from POLCOUNS USG views on these
proposed reforms, and other opposition leaders eager to
discuss this matter as well. The GOP's consultations with
civil society leaders, consultations into which the GOP was
forced by loud, cranky clamor of criticism that Torrijos was
striving to "re-militarize," are not going well as key civic
leaders issue calls to debate these security reforms in the
National Assembly or the "national dialogue (concertacion
nacional)." Furthermore, Torrijos' own chairperson of the
National Transparency and Anti-Corruption Council, Alma de
Fletcher, called on August 9 for broader debate and was
subsequently joined in her call by National Ombudsman
(Defensor del Pueblo) Ricardo Vargas on August 10. While it
runs the risk of complicating U.S. security engagement with
Panama, this internal security reform debate also holds open
the opportunity that, if managed and implemented properly,
Panama and the U.S. may indeed be able to move their
bilateral relationship to a new level, especially if the
Merida Initiative can be properly harnessed, particularly in
areas that show immediate benefit to the Panamanian public
such as community policing.
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Security Reform Package Becomes Political Football
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2. (C) Before going out of session on June 30, the National
Assembly granted President Torrijos extraordinary powers to
craft and enact legislation that would: create a National
Aero-Naval Service (SENAN), establish a National Intelligence
Service (SENIS), form an independent Frontier Service
(SENAFRONT), and allow the naming of a uniformed officer to
head the Panamanian National Police (PNP). While GOP
officials strive to meet the August 31 deadline for Torrijos
to use his extraordinary powers, opposition leaders are
struggling with how to respond to this security reform
package. There is nothing unusual about the National
Assembly delegating legislative authority to the President at
the end of a session, but delegating authority on sensitive
security matters is unheard of. Not only former anti-Noriega
Civil Crusade (Crusada Civilista) leaders, but also an ever
broader array of public commentators, NGO leaders, and
opposition politicians have raised the specter that Torrijos
is attempting to "re-militarize," something that is
politically anathema and constitutionally outlawed in Panama.
Having surprised the public with the extraordinary powers to
enact security reform and subsequently been surprised by the
backlash, the Torrijos Administration acquiesced and launched
a round of "consultations" with civil society leaders
beginning on August 4.
Lewis and Delgado Brief Ambassador
3. (C) "This package of laws is necessary to address the
growing crime and insecurity on our streets," Delgado told
Ambassador on August 8 over lunch when briefing GOP plans to
establish a coast guard, intelligence service, and frontier
force and to put a uniformed officer in charge of the PNP.
"People want to see improvement on the streets." Lewis
asserted that the "consultations" were going better than
anticipated. "There are a lot of misconceptions about what
is in the proposed laws," Lewis said, "so we have had an
opportunity to clarify them. Also, we are receiving very few
comments or questions." Lewis added that on August 11 the
GOP would publish the laws as well as all comments received
to date as well as open a website and toll-free phone line to
receiving comments from the general public. "We have already
incorporated some of the requested changes," Lewis said.
Generally, Lewis downplayed the reaction within the
opposition to these proposals and said he did not foresee
political difficulties for the Torrijos Administration.
Asked why the laws had to be enacted by August 31 when the
extraordinary powers expire, Delgado explained that the laws
establishing these entities needed to be put in place so that
the next session of the National Assembly that convenes on
September 1 would able to deal with the budgetary issues
4. (C) In an aside, former Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF)
Lieutenant Colonel Delgado commented that his ministry was
having difficulty recruiting to fill the ranks of the PNP and
other public forces. "The pay and salaries elsewhere are
something that are difficult to compete with," Delgado
commented. "Add to that the prospect of getting hassled with
human rights accusations, and a career in the PNP did not
look so great." Delgado went on to say that he was trying to
make PNP service more appealing by offering barracks-style or
base-type housing available to families, establishing PNP
commissary services, and creating officer and enlisted clubs.
He laughed at the notion that only golf courses were missing
from the mix.
5. (C) As he was departing the Ambassador's residence, MFA
Senior Advisor Adolfo Ahumada pulled A/DCM aside and floated
to him the idea of separating the civilian intelligence
(SENIS) law from the security reform pacckage and puting it
out to debate and analysis in the "National Dialogue
(Concertacion Nacional) process. Ahumada noted that this
particular law was drawing the most fire from the broadest
front in the opposition and the wider civil society.
6. (C) Noting that in principle the U.S. did not have
objections to the GOP's proposed direction on these reforms,
Ambassador underscored that it was neither here nor there for
the U.S. to bless Panama's own internal legislative
undertakings. The U.S., however, was interested in how these
reforms would be implemented to strengthen democracy and
protect human rights while also preserving strong bilateral
security cooperation. If the politics of the security reform
debate became too turbulent, for example, existing security
cooperation could be jeopardized and efforts to strengthen
that cooperation under the Merida Initiative would be
complicated. The U.S. would work to differentiate between
on-going security cooperation like PANAMAX, future
initiatives like the Merida Initiative, and the GOP's own
security reforms. If the debate over security reform became
too toxic though, the U.S. was concerned that it could affect
existing cooperation by making it too politically sensitive
to execute effectively. Ambassador urged Lewis and Delgado
to consider carefully how they managed the security reform
Martinelli's Man Inquires About USG Views
7. (C) "We are going to have to say something about these
proposed security laws," Martinelli political advisor
Papadimitriu told POLCOUNS August 9. "Torrijos had made this
a political issue by trying to use extraordinary powers to
get this done in an election year." The central security
issue on the public's political agenda, Papadimitriu noted,
was law and order in people's neighborhoods, not border
security or intercepting drug traffickers. "You can expect
us to hit hard on Torrijos' inability to stem the growing
violence and crime on our streets." POLCOUNS echoed
Ambassador's comments that the U.S. sought to preserve its
security cooperation with Panama and build a basis for
strengthening that cooperation while strengthening Panama's
civilian institutions and respect for democracy and human
rights; Papadimitriu concurred. "None of these proposed laws
do anything to help the average citizen though," he
8. (C) He said that Democratic Change (CD) and its alliance
partner Patriotic Union (UP) would hold a conference on
security on August 11 to analyze Panama's security
challenges. Seeing that Martinelli might have a "leadership"
opportunity to outflank both the governing Revolutionary
Democratic Party (PRD) that was "enthralled" with the
prospect at gaining new security powers and the Panamenista
Party whose default setting was to oppose anything that
smacked of dictatorship, Papadimitriu said CD would consider
staking out a measured response on the security reforms. "We
could, for example, support establishment of a coast guard
(SENAN) and a border force (SENAFRONT) as good steps to deal
with the FARC and drug traffickers while protecting the
canal," he said. The creation of an intelligence service
(SENIS), however, needed to be "anchored in democracy" and
would need to be debated more fully.
Lewis Sanguine about Security Reform Package
9. (C) Lewis reiterated, during Ambassador's visit to Lewis'
Contadora Island home on July 10, that he did not believe
that opposition to the security reform package was a
significant impediment; "People want security and safety."
Turning to the situation in the Darien he said, "The FARC are
really being pressured by Uribe. Their chain of command is
falling apart, so they are acting in a much less disciplined
fashion, for example, sacking recently a grocery store in
Bajo Chico. We need to be able to deal with FARC in a smart
way as they go through these last throes of their existence."
Asked if he had spoken with Torrijos about the briefing two
days earlier on the security reform package, Lewis confided
that he had not had an opportunity to do so.
10. (C) In acknowledging the threat posed by FARC Elements in
the Darien (REFTEL), Torrijos opened the door to greater
security cooperation with the U.S. to address Panama's FARC
threat, continuing problem with narcotics trafficking and
other illegal activities, and meeting other shared security
challenges. TThe U.S. needs to walk through the open door
and to engage to build stronger security partnership that is
anchored in greater regional cooperation while continuing to
bolster Panama's democracy.
11. (C) Torrijos' eagerness to advance on the security front,
however, is greatly complicated by Panamanian political
realities, realities further complicated by the Torrijos
Administration's (mis)steps to date and the tangled history
of the U.S.-Panamanian bilateral relationship. But for the
opposition outcry, Torrijos and the PRD would have blithely
and blindly charged ahead to enact by fiat security reform
legislation that has rubbed raw the partially healed wounds
of the dictatorships of Torrijos' father and Noriega. The
"consultations" have been less than robust: significant
civil society organizations have been omitted; participants
have not had an opportunity to review the laws before
attending; and little time is left for comment after briefing
the proposed legislation. Politically tin-earred, Delgado is
not the ideal conciliator to manage the delicate dance that
will be required to oversee the security reform debate. In
discussing the civil society consultations with the press,
Delgado unhelpfully commented, "The laws will go because they
will go." His vision of a "civilian" police with barracks,
commissaries, and their own clubs in splendid isolation is
worrisome and suggests a certain personal nostalgia for his
old PDF days. Lewis' involvement therefore is a positive
development, and the U.S. should strive to strengthen his
hand in this internal GOP debate. The proposal to send the
SENIS law to the "Concertacion" by Ahumada, Lewis' right-hand
man, may provide the nucleus for a way out of the current
morass, a formula that appears to appeal to CD's Papadimitriu.
12. (C) Widely held public perception that the U.S. is
intimately involved in Panama's own security reform effort --
largely driven by the misplaced speculation that Panama's
legislative proposals were coordinated with the
re-establishment of the U.S. Fourth Fleet, Delgado's July
visit to the Pentagon, the announcement of the Merida
Initiative, and the annual PANAMAX multi-national exercise
that began on August 7 -- will complicate and underscore the
need for effective and careful U.S. engagement. Post is now
carrying out extensive missionary work with key opposition
and NGO leaders to clarifying matters by separating on-going
security cooperation activities (e.g., PANAMAX), new
initiatives (e.g., Merida), and the Torrijos Administration's
security reform package.
13. (C) Post's goals are to: preserve on-going military,
security, and law enforcement cooperation; lay the groundwork
for enhancing that cooperation; ensure that, however it
advances on security, Panama does so anchored in democracy
and respect for human rights. Panama clearly expects
significant U.S. funding assistance to train and equip the
SENAN and SENAFRONT, but the absence of FY08 FMF funding for
Panama and the recent disqualification of Panama for 1206
funding will pose a serious challenge to the U.S. ability to
foster partnership with these new GOP entities. Furthermore,
it will be politically incumbent upon the USG through the
Merida Initiative to show that it can be a partner in
addressing effectively and democratically the average
Panamanian citizen's security needs: better law enforcement
and safety. Doing so -- through community policing programs,
for example -- will burnish USG and GOP street credibility
that the U.S. and Panama can indeed take the security
relationship to the next level without endangering democratic
institutions or threatening human rights.
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