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August 9, 2001

Narco News 2001

Panama Time Bomb

Drawn Into Colombian War

By Okke Ornstein

Panamá Correspondent

Special to The Narco News Bulletin

Publisher's Note: Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein recently did what U.S. journalists have not yet done. He went deep into Panama's jungle province of Darien, along the Colombia border. There, he found the consequences of imposed U.S. drug policy and its "Plan Colombia" wreaking havoc, and that "the general feeling is that the U.S. wants to move back into Panama, and that feeling actually makes sense."

Panama City has been buzzing with stories for over a year now. "Secret airstrips being built in the jungle", alleged the newspaper El Siglo. Groups of US military advisors would be staying at the Radison hotel, and could, in fact, be spotted all over town. Military aircraft are using Tocumen International Airport for stopovers to Colombia. There are unconfirmed reports about secret flights arriving at the old Howard airforce base at night. I saw large ships carrying Black Hawk helicopters passing the Canal. Panamanian TV showed footage of unmarked helicopters apparently engaged in some excercise. The US is advertising for Panamanian companies that can fly cargo and personel through Panama to Colombia. The general feeling is that the US wants to move back into Panama, and that feeling actually makes sense.

Since the gringos left the Canal Zone and had to leave their military bases behind, they were short of bases in the area, while at the same time operations in Colombia were heating up. The US needed alternatives, and found them in the so-called "Forward Operating Locations" (FOL), in Ecuador and the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curaçao. However, the locations of these FOL's are far from ideal. The Dutch Antilles are situated just off the Venezuelan coast, and that country doesn't allow US flights to cross its airspace, forcing the AWACS and spy planes to make a huge detour to fly to where the action is. Furthermore, the use of the bases is limited. The FOL in Ecuador is not ideal because of the Andes lying between the base and Colombia.

The treaty with the Dutch government says that the bases on the Antilles may only be used for drug interdiction flights over the Caribbean and AWACS flights over Colombia, though nobody checks if the US complies with these rules and one pilot of private contractor "Evergreen" told that chemicals used for coca spraying are being stored on the bases. The limitations are a result of the political sensitivity in Holland towards the US backed "Plan Colombia": the government had a difficult job getting the treaty through the parliament in May of this year. The Netherlands, as many other European countries, is opposed to Plan Colombia as a "too military solution to Colombia's problems".

I had a conversation with two spokespeople of the American embassy in Panama prior to the Dutch parliamentary debate about the FOL's. They confirmed that, from a geographic point of view, Panama would be an ideal alternative if the Dutch should decide not to let the US use the Antillean bases any more. They also said that they felt that Panama "should be more involved in Plan Colombia", but insisted that "there is no pressure from the US on the Panamanian government to allow the US to establish a renewed military presence in Panama".

But, they may not have to apply much pressure. The US may even be invited to return, due to the chaotic situation in the jungle province of Dariën, which borders Colombia.

Last year, the small village of Nazareth, which is close to the Colombian border, was attacked by unknown forces. A policeman who was in Nazareth at the time and lived to tell about it recalls vividly how it all started: "They began with shelling the village for a long time. Mortars, rockets, gunfire, everything they used. Then, after that had gone on for hours, they moved in and destroyed what was left of the village. I know that the paramilitares were blamed for it, but I believe it was the guerrillas."

The affair drew attention to something nobody in Panama really wants to talk about: The presence of virtually all parties that are engaged in the Colombian conflict in the Dariën. Inside sources confirm that the northern part of that province is controlled by the Colombian paramilitaries, while the southern part is the domain of the FARC.

The committee for the protection of the sovereignity of Panama, MONADESA, alleged that the attack on Nazareth was probably provoked by the US. By instigating unrest in the Dariën, the US could claim that the Canal would be in danger, which under the Canal Treaty would allow them to send in the military to protect this important shipping lane. According to MONADESA, headed by padre Conrado Sanjur, the building of secret airstrips in the Dariën should be viewed from this perspective as well: The US would slowly drag Panama into the Colombian war, thus creating an excuse to establish a military presence again.

Panama, the Canal, sovereignty, US military - all this pointed in the direction of General Omar Torrijos, Panama's former military strongman that preceded General Noriega, and who, after lengthy negotiations finally had been able to get the Canal in Panamanian hands. Torrijos is still a legend in Panama. There are signs along the roads with slogans like "The Panama Canal for the Panamanians - Thank you Omar". Buildings are named after him. I even saw a small electricity box in the jungle that had a plaque on it with his picture.

Unfortunately, Torrijos died in a mysterious airplane crash long ago. But, he has a son, Martin Torrijos, who has been a presidential candidate, and I figured that he would be the one to talk to about all this. After all, he is a politician and has the legacy of his father to protect. In the usual Panamanian inconceivable way, going through many friends and assistants, I set up an appointment for an interview. On the morning of the meeting however I received a phone call from one of these assistants that Torrijos had cancelled the interview, because the subjects to be discussed were "too sensitive".

Because the legacy of Torrijos wasn't going to bring me any further, I decided to travel to the Dariën myself to check things out. Moving around by car, plane and piragua (an Indian canoe), I first tried to find out where these secret airstrips were being built. And indeed I found a bare piece of land where all trees had been cut, near the village of Nicanor. The police chief of the nearby police headquarters explained that this future airfield would be used for "medical evacuations".

"So you expect a lot of medical evacuations then", I replied, "that you will need airplanes to fly out the emergencies".

"I can't comment on that", said the police chief, " I'm not allowed to talk about this".

I traveled deeper into the Dariën, past Yaviza, where the Panamerican Highway ends, by boat upstream the many rivers that are the only way of transportation. The Dariën is practically abandoned by the government, even the few roads are not being maintained, to the dismay of the population. This is the area where people had disappeared, been kidnapped, or robbed. The other passengers on the boat were quiet. In fact they were scared. One man told me how he had been robbed of his boat by the guerrillas. "Here it was", he said, pointing at a spot on the border of the river, "they were with five men, dressed in guerilla uniforms and they first shot me. There was no escape, so I brought the boat to the shore and they took it and everything in it." He still didn't have a new boat.

It was the first of many tales I heard about the activities of the Colombian guerilla in the Dariën. They have a camp there where reportedly a thousand of them are living. The camp has been there for at least twenty-five years and nobody really bothered about it, but the presence of the FARC has become more violent over the last years. I went with the man whose boat was stolen to his village, Capeti, that had been attacked previously as well. In similar fashion to the attack on Nazareth, the small indigenous village was shelled for hours in the early morning before the attackers moved in and robbed everything. After raping a 13-year-old girl they left again. Everybody I spoke to in the village said that these were the guerrillas. I heard many similar stories in the other villages I visited.

The FARC itself is reluctant to discuss its presence in Panama. The Paramilitaries in a television interview readily confirmed that they move in and out of Panama, but the FARC's representative I contacted would only mention a presence in "the border area", to add hastily: "on the Colombian side of course". This is however not true. Policemen and villagers, and even the Cuna indians that supply the FARC camp with food, all of them confirmed that the camp is in Panama, and pointed out it's exact location. It's run by a certain Comandante Rodriguez of the 57th front. And so I jumped on the next boat, planning on visiting Comandante Rodriguez and hear his side of the story.

But that was not to be.

As I arrived in Boca del Cupe, which is a sort of last stop before the FARC camp, the police were already waiting for me and quickly brought me to their station. There I was given to understand that it would be better not to visit the comandante. The police had captured a woman from the camp who was now detained in Panama City, and comandante Rodriguez had sent a letter to the authorities demanding her release or he would attack another village. In Boca del Cupe, helicopters were flying in and out Vietnam-style, bringing reinforcements and extra ammunition. Reportedly, even remote controlled landmines were brought in. Wooden fortifications surrounded the tiny village. From what I heard, the same was going on in other villages in the area. I decided that comandante Rodriguez might probably not be in the mood to receive a Dutch journalist. He has however not attacked any villages yet.

After the US invasion, the Panamanian army was dismantled, so that there are no armed forces any more. The border with Colombia is protected by special police forces that reportedly are being trained by US advisors. However, this sounds bigger than it is. The FARC is much better armed than these special forces, that for a large part consist of 18-year-old boys with big old guns. Most of the policemen I talked to were scared, as they were perfectly aware that they are no match for the guerrillas or paramilitaries. What it comes down to is that Panama is not able to protect itself from intrusions from Colombia. The border problems are further aggravated by Colombian refugees moving in, some of which are however coming from the FARC camp. "They pose as refugees, stay a few months in one of the villages, and after that you see them moving back to the camp", said one policeman. A US military expert added: "It's very difficult to control the movements of insurgents. Three men and a mule enter a village. After a while they leave again, but there's no more luggage on the mule. Then two of the men return. And more drop in. It's impossible to keep track of these hidden movements."

The FARC itself is not too happy, or so it seems, about the actions of comandante Rodriguez either. The representative commented that "we have rules, and of course one can sometimes deviate from the rules. But not in this way, making threats and such".

Meanwhile Panama faces a serious problem that no politician dares to touch. When the war in Colombia heats up, more fighting parties will cross Panama's porous border, together with refugees, dragging the country into the war as well. The US military expert I spoke to predicted: "In a few years we'll have in Panama the same situation there is in Colombia now, with the Dariën province effectively controlled by the guerrillas."

Since Panama is not in any position to prevent this from happening, it looks like the country faces a catch-22 type of situation: Either they have to allow the Colombians moving in, or they have to bring back the US military to protect the borders.

Martin Torrijos may remain silent, but one can hear the time bomb ticking.

The Bomb Squad of Authentic Journalism