Panama Caught Up in FARC Crisis
With Quarreling Neighbors and its Own Guerrilla Camps, Panama Is In a Tough Spot... and US Involvement Threatens to Make Things Worse
By Okke Ornstein
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
March 7, 2008
PANAMA CITY: In 2001, I wrote on these pages that the Darién jungle province separating Panama from Colombia was a ticking time bomb. Over the years, however, I started to wonder if I had been wrong on that. All seemed quiet on Panama’s eastern front. But today, the time bomb can be heard ticking again and may be ready to go off.
Panama will not break diplomatic ties with its neighbor Colombia – as Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua have already done – in response to the Colombian attack on Ecuadorian soil against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in its Spanish initials).
Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa visited Panama yesterday and met with president Martín Torrijos. At a press conference afterward, Correa again sharply denounced the Colombian attack, but Torrijos did not follow suit.
The official position is that Panama’s ambassador at the OAS, Aristides Royo, is trying to play a mediating role between the different parties. Yet, other news suggests that there is more at stake.
The FARC has long had a presence in Panama’s impenetrable Darién jungle province that borders Colombia, with a camp that lies next to the poorly defined border. Historically, there has been an unofficial live-and-let-live understanding between the Panamanian government and the FARC rebels, with just occasional brushes between guerrilla groups and the Panamanian police (rebel armies seldom attack their banking centers). However, that relatively quiet situation has come under stress with the confrontation between a small group of guerrillas and the police at sea on February 22. A policeman was shot, the rebels captured, and arms, explosives as well as traces of drugs reportedly found on the rebels’ boat. Next, a communique surfaced, purportedly from the FARC, threatening kidnappings and assassinations of politicians should the rebels not be released immediately. The government claimed the communique was false, but raided an internet cafe from where it supposedly originated nevertheless.
Not surprisingly, various measures have been announced to secure the border with Colombia. But, given the terrain, that is an impossible task to accomplish with manpower alone. The United States has now jumped in and is “studying” whether it will equip Panama with sophisticated military hardware to monitor the border. But logic dictates just the hardware will not be enough; high-tech radar systems need experts to operate then, and Panamanian police would have to be trained to use them. That would at the very least suggest US military advisers coming to Panama – if they aren’t already here.
And then there is the Canal. Under the Torrijos-Carter treaties of 1977, the US has the right to intervene militarily should operation of the Canal be in danger, and the 1989 invasion proved that the US will indeed exercise that right. On top of that, the US would very much like to have a military presence again in Panama. Not only have US authorities been asking for exactly that since the Canal zone was given back to Panama in 2000, but annual naval exercises to protect the Canal from “terrorism” and the upcoming closure of the base in Manta, Ecuador, further underline the North American desire to set up a military shop in Panama.
The right-wing bloggers are already hammering the theme: Yesterday John Keller, editor of the “Military & Aerospace Electronics” magazine, wrote on his blog (after first having corrected an earlier statement that China operates the Canal): “I retain my concern, however, that a Chinese company effectively controls the entrances and exits of the Panama Canal at a time when U.S. and Chinese national interests could come into conflict just a couple of hundred miles away.”
A Chinese owned company owns two container terminals on the entrances of the Canal, which has long been a thorn in the side of US conservatives, even though that same company, Hutchison Whampoa, holds important stakes in US port operations as well.
Furthermore, blogger Don Winner (an ultra-right-wing former employee of US Air Force Intelligence in Panama), while not directly calling for US “protection” of Panama, writes: “Hugo Chavez needs a regional war to remain in power, and to attempt to realize his vision of recreating a Bolivarian Pan-Latino state based on a communistic model. It’s not going to work, but there is a good possibility thousands might die while he tries to make it happen. Chavez is very, very dangerous.”
One can see where this is going with all this fear mongering about the Chinese closing down the Canal while Chávez wages regional war.
Would Panama welcome US troops or some sort of US military protection of the Canal and its border with Colombia? The issue is a political hot potato. The ruling party of President Martin Torrijos, the PRD, will be completely divided on the issue. Lacking a clear ideology other than its liking of militarism, the PRD has a neoliberal wing that supports US policies but also a semi-left wing that carries on the nationalism and militarism of its heroes General Omar Torrijos and Manuel Antonio Noriega, and was responsible for the election of Pedro Miguel Gonzalez as the president of the National Assembly – a man wanted in the US on “terrorism” charges. This election basically sunk a free trade agreement with the US that the neoliberals had negotiated and promoted. The nationalists further accuse the neoliberals of having betrayed Noriega in what they claim is a secret deal with the US government to have the former dictator extradited to France instead of returning home to Panama. And as if that isn’t enough, the two groups inside the PRD are currently involved in a bitter power struggle related to internal elections, with accusations of payments by Hugo Chávez to the nationalist candidates flying back and forth. US involvement in protecting Panama’s security would be like sending spray planes with gasoline over a forest fire.
Thus, Panama is caught from all sides. It can’t embrace Colombia and the United States because that will cause civil war within the governing party and strain basically good relations with Venezuela. It can’t join the public condemnation of Colombia or be seen being lenient towards the FARC because that will bring pressure from up North. Under these circumstances, Torrijos has apparently decided that he can do little else than maintain a low profile and hope it will all just blow over. Yet, time bombs don’t usually stop ticking all by itself.
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