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.