The announcement last July that Colombia would lend the use of certain military bases to U.S. forces unleashed a well-worn debate about sovereignty and U.S. involvement in the Latin America. Five months later, the rhetoric continues. As recently as December 8, 2009, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez complained the base would destabilize peace in the region at the latest Mercosur summit in Montevideo, Uruguay.
In the midst of this uproar relating back to fighting the drug trade, Panama has taken action with its own counternarcotics strategy. On December 1, 2009, Panama quietly announced the establishment of the first of 11 bases at Isla Chapera, an island in the Perlas Archipelago in the Gulf of Panama. The principal purpose of the bases will be counternarcotics efforts. Ironically, the island belongs to a high-ranking Colombian drug trafficker who stands accused of money laundering in Panama.
With the establishment of these bases in both the Caribbean and the Pacific, Panama is looking to directly confront its role as a node in the complex chain of international drug trafficking. Narcotics originating in South America arrive in Panama from submersibles, semi-submersibles, go-fast boats, container ships, fishing vessels, and narcoplanes (small private aircraft loaded with drugs) that utilize clandestine airstrips in Panama. In 2008, authorities seized 53.1 tons of narcotics, or 5 percent of all drugs seized worldwide. These figures suggest that an even greater quantity of narcotics pass through undetected.
Panama’s ample coastline on both the Caribbean and Pacific sides and its location connecting South America to North and Central America make it a strategically important transit point in the drug trafficking supply chain. Panamanian authorities recognize this. In March 2009, a top Panamanian official called Panama “the prime logistic meeting point for smugglers from the Tijuana Cartel, Golf Cartel and Sinaloa Federation.”
Yet Panama’s role in the drug trade isn’t merely one of south to north shipments. Panama, whose banking system has long been suspected of being a haven for money laundering, is currently in the midst of a money laundering scandal involving the cousin of President Roberto Martinelli and the Beltran-Leyva Organization in Mexico.
Given the sensitivity over U.S. involvement in the region, the establishment of the first functioning base in Panama has invariably given rise to questions about foreign presence at the bases. Panamanian authorities have insisted work on the base will be 100 percent Panamanian. But they have left the door open for international cooperation and intelligence sharing. The fact that Panamanian authorities announced the possibility for international cooperation as a reality is indicative of potential future cooperation with the United States in counternarcotics strategies.
But the focus on international cooperation draws attention away from the underlying issue: the cartels’ ability to operate an extensive network throughout the Americas to smuggle drugs and people north and cash and guns south. Time and time again international drug trafficking organizations have shown resilience and resourcefulness when dealing with setbacks and increased pressure on their supply chain. While intelligence sharing may lead to more arrests and high-profile seizures, it is unlikely to remove the problem. Instead, an increase in pressure on trafficking in Panama may merely push activity outside of Panama’s borders and become an issue for one of Panama’s neighbors.
Isla Chapera is the first of many Panamanian bases whose aim is to stem the flow of drugs into and out of Panama and is indicative of a firm commitment from Panama to combat this flow. Statements from Panamanian authorities suggest that the country will not be able to tackle this problem alone, and that they will be open to international intelligence sharing and strategy. But the actual use of the bases, for now, seems to be firmly in the hands of the Panamanians.
*Eliot Brockner is a guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He is an independent media analyst and writer focusing on policy, security, and crime in Latin America and U.S.-Latin American relations.