Coast Guard Commandant’s Panama Visit Shows Continued U.S. Focus on Central American Security

On November 17, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft travelled to Panama to meet with President Juan Carlos Varela and members of his security cabinet. Their discussion focused on themes related to drug interdiction and the fight against organized criminal groups.

Panama has long been a significant player in the regional drug trade and recent increases in drug seizures suggest that the country has retained its importance as a transit route for South American narcotics headed north. Earlier this month, the Panamanian National Police seized more than 100 kilos of cocaine and detained two Panamanian citizens in a bust that brought the total amount of illicit narcotics seized since last July to more than 10 tons.

The country is also well-known as a hub for laundering financial proceeds from illicit activities and continues to struggle with the presence of violent gangs as well as transnational criminal organizations and guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). However, the U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) describes Panama as “relatively safe when compared to other Central American countries,” and credits the efforts of Panama’s National Police for a recent reduction in homicide rates.

According to the watchdog organization RESDAL, Panama spends about $1.2 billion on security each year, more than any other Central American country. The United States has provided Panama roughly $8 million per year since 2012 in military and police aid, about half of which has come from Section 1004 and Section 1033 counternarcotics accounts.

Panama has partnered with the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain, France and other Central American countries in the Operation Martillo counternarcotics/anti-crime initiative launched in January 2012. The country has also cooperated with other international anti-drug efforts near its territorial waters. In May of this year, U.S. and Colombian authorities seized thousands of pounds of cocaine off the coast of Panama City. Another joint U.S.-Colombian operation in the Caribbean near Panama in August resulted in a similar haul.

While the OSAC describes Panama as “relatively safe,” the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy refers to “growing levels of insecurity” in Panama as well as nearby countries like Belize, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Also, much attention has been paid to the astronomical rates of violence observed in Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” comprising Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Admiral Zukunft’s visit, as well as funding requests by the U.S. congress, suggest that supporting Panama’s crimefighting efforts in conjunction with other security-related programs in Central America will continue to be a priority for the United States going forward.

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