Colombia and Panama signed an agreement to cooperate in fighting crime along their shared border region, which is a key location for groups trafficking drugs, people, and arms. The deal marks Panama’s increased interest in cooperating with its southern neighbor to secure the Darien region, following a series of confrontations with Colombian armed groups over the last year.
With the newly-signed·Binational Border Security Plan, the latest in a series of joint security efforts, the two countries agreed to coordinate operations in the Darien, the remote and untamed jungle area which is the only land link between Central and South America. The pact aims to to improve intelligence work, increase information-sharing, and protect the local population from armed groups active in the area.
Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera welcomed the pact, saying that while the geographical position of the two countries made them “a natural location for licit trade routes” it also places them at risk from “organized transnational crime.” The Panamanian and Colombian officials·said that as well as the threat from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the security forces of both countries will be working to combat “other manifestations of transnational crime” in the border region.
The FARC have in recent months been particularly active in the Darien area. Panama’s Security Minister José Mulino said Thursday that the FARC had well-established camps on Panamanian territory, and that the leadership of the FARC’s 57th Front had for some time been based in the border region, where they have established camps housing hundreds of guerrillas. The 57th Front are thought by Colombian authorities to have the mission of expanding the drug trafficking business on the Panama border, and have links to Mexican cartels. This statement follows Mulino’s comments in July 2010 on the rise in guerrilla activity in the border region, when he stated that that “Panama, for the first time, is finding landmines in its territory.” Both Colombia and Panama have also expressed concern about the guerrillas’ forced recruitment of local people in the Darien region, including minors and members of indigenous groups.
The increased activity of the FARC in Panama can be explained by two factors. The FARC are increasingly involved in trafficking drugs out of Colombia, which makes it useful for them to have posts in border regions. In addition to this, the security drive begun by former President Alvaro Uribe and continued by current President Juan Manuel Santos has pushed the rebels out of Colombia’s central and urban regions over the last decade, driving the group into more remote regions such as the Darien, and over Colombia’s borders into neighboring countries like Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela.
This rise in rebel activity in the region has led to several clashes between Panama’s security forces and the FARC. Most significant for Panamanian policy was an incident in June 2010 when two border police were seriously injured by landmines which the authorities attributed to the FARC. Both men lost their legs. In response Panama’s government said it would increase efforts to secure the area; Mulino said “We are going to patrol and cover our territory, these people are not going to use our territory as a sanctuary or as a theater of operations,” reported El Espectador.
Colombia has also stepped up operations in the area, and in October 2010 the security forces carried out “Operation Darien,” a bombing raid against the 57th Front which killed commander Luis Mora Pestaña, alias “Silver,” and several other rebel leaders.
Colombia has in recent years been on more friendly terms with Panama’s government than with its neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela. In 2003 Colombia and Panama set up the Bilateral Border Commission (COMBIFRON), a framework to manage cooperation on border security. Colombia also now has COMBIFRON agreements with Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. Under the agreement Colombia’s intelligence and immigration agency, the DAS, has been working for several years with Panama’s immigration service to share information and coordinate efforts to fight crime. There was less cooperation with previous Panamanian adminstrations than with that of current President Ricadro Martinelli, however. According to emails allegedly found on seized FARC hard drives, Presidents Mireya Moscoso (1999-2004) and Martín Torrijos (2004-2009) made pacts of non-aggression with the guerrilla group, and agreed to tolerate their presence in the border region.