August 9, 2001
Narco News 2001
Drawn Into Colombian
By Okke Ornstein
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."
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
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
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
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
Martin Torrijos may remain silent, but
one can hear the time bomb ticking.
The Bomb Squad
of Authentic Journalism