Latin America & Caribbean

'No peace dividend' for Panama border force

Frank Abrego on board a helicopter on 16 April 2015
Image caption Frank Abrego (wearing sunglasses) is in charge of Panama's border police

"Peace is not a bad thing, but it's unlikely to solve our problems," says Director of Panama's Border Police, Frank Abrego.

He is referring to the prospect of a peace deal between the Colombian government and left-wing rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

Most of Panama's security problems originate south of its border, in Colombia.

Colombia is one of the world's top three producers of coca, the raw ingredient of cocaine, and huge amounts of it are smuggled from Colombia to the United States.

Panama, Colombia's northern neighbour, is often the first stop for those smuggling the drug by land or speedboat.

Rebel stronghold

Colombia is also the scene of the continent's longest-running armed conflict.

For more than 50 years, Farc rebels have been fighting the Colombian government.

The jungle area between Colombia and Panama was for years a rebel stronghold.

From a helicopter, Gen Abrego points out small hamlets in Darien province, on the Panamanian side of the border.

"This is where the Farc would hold its football tournament," he says pointing to a clearing in the jungle.

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Media captionThe approach to the border camp by helicopter
Image caption The area is almost impossible to access by road

"And this is where they would rest after carrying out their attacks."

No standing army

In 2008, almost two-thirds of Darien province was under rebel control, he says.

Combating the rebels has been no mean feat for Panama, which, along with Costa Rica, is one of only two countries in Latin America not to have a standing army.

Image caption Panama has no standing army but it does have police special forces
Image caption The special forces have been trained for jungle combat

Panama's military was disbanded shortly after the 1989 US invasion which overthrew military ruler Gen Manuel Noriega.

A constitutional amendment in 1994 later prohibited the creation of a standing army for good.

It therefore comes as little surprise that for years Farc rebels could move almost freely from Colombia across the 225-km-long border into Darien to rest and regroup.

It is only since the creation of the Panamanian Border Police, Senafront, in 2008 that the government has had a permanent presence in the area.

That increased security presence is in Colombia's interest too. It has long been frustrated by the ease with which the rebels could escape arrest by slipping across the border.

Joint effort

The two countries co-operate closely on security and run a joint control post called La Union.

Image caption La Union is right on the border between Panama and Colombia
Image caption The Colombian troops stationed here work closely with the Panamanian police

La Union is located on top of a mountain in dense jungle.

It sits right across one of the main routes the Farc used to enter into the country.

As we land, it is steeped in mist, giving it an eerie feel.

La Union does not consist of much more than a few wooden bunkers covered with sandbags.

Image caption They carry out patrols and guard the perimeter from any potential attacks
Image caption Panamanian officers are stationed in La Union for a month at a time

The lookouts are manned by young policemen on the Panamanian side, and young soldiers on the Colombian side, all of whom look rather relaxed, almost bored.

The Colombians, who are stationed here for four months at a time, keep themselves busy by building a new accommodation hut which they hope will prove more comfortable than the tents they are currently sleeping in.

'Hearts and minds'

There does not seem to be much of a threat here, but Gen Abrego assures me this post and others like it are key in keeping the rebels at bay and keeping the local population safe.

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Media captionCaptain Tejeira of Panama border police shows the BBC inside the camp bunker
Image caption They maintain an armoury and are currently building new accommodation blocks

"For a long time, the only authority in these parts was the commander of the 57th division of the Farc.

"We found workshops for the repair of weapons and abandoned fields because the Farc would not allow the locals to tend to them," he explains.

Gen Abrego says that through a "hearts and minds" campaign, providing residents with basic healthcare schooling and food, the police have managed to secure the allegiance of the bulk of the local population.

But with the influence of the Farc waning, a new threat has emerged.

Criminal gangs have taken over many of the drug trafficking routes from the Farc.

And they are often harder to combat than the rebels, according to Gen Abrego.

"The Farc are organised along military lines. You have leaders and deputies and loyalties and discipline," he explains.

"But the only thing the members of these new criminal gangs are loyal to is money."

'''If the boss doesn't pay up, I shoot him dead,' that's how they operate."

Cash allure

Gen Abrego thinks that countering the gangs' influence on the population will also become more complicated because of the huge amounts of money they offer to residents for stashing and transporting drugs.

Image caption "Actions speak louder than words" - a mural at the police training base in Darien
Image caption The number of police assigned to patrolling the area is relatively large for a small country such as Panama

"We'll have to do a lot more work among the locals to explain how the drugs they were paid $5,000 (£3,200) to hide can kill those who end up consuming them in New York," he says.

And as for the Farc, Gen Abrego thinks it is unlikely that all of their guerrilla fighters will demobilise, even if a peace agreement is reached.

"They will continue to be run as a drug cartel," he says.

"I think it's difficult to imagine how someone who has seen how millions of dollars can be made trafficking drugs will settle for making $600 as a park ranger."

"Maybe it's not impossible, but I think it's highly unlikely."

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