About the Authors: Peter Kranstover and Claire Sneed serve in the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction & Stabilization.
In recent years, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) have been making inroads into southern Panama. The Darien, situated on the border with Colombia, is the southernmost province of Panama. This lush tropical valley, flanked on three sides by mountains, is renowned for its biodiversity. While eco-tourists flock to the region for its pristine rainforest, criminal groups are moving in for a different reason. The Darien Gap, the only break in the nearly 30,000 mile Pan-American Highway, provides a safe haven for those attempting to evade Colombian security forces.
Traditionally, the Darien received little attention, in part due to the region’s geographic isolation and “frontier” reputation, and in part because the FARC had not previously unduly bothered Darien residents. This changed when the Colombian government to the South made real inroads in defeating the FARC. Rebels increasingly fled Colombia through the mountains into the Darien and made greater demands on local residents. FARC presence prompted growth in trafficking networks and gangs, particularly in the areas inhabited by indigenous peoples like the Embera in Southeast Darien. Evidence that the FARC was recruiting indigenous youth sparked concerns in Panama’s capital. It became clear that the country would have to pay attention to this ungoverned space, or the problem could grow out of hand.
In an effort to respond, in August 2008, the Panamanian government formed a new border patrol unit, known as SENAFRONT, to concentrate on law enforcement and security along Panama’s border with Colombia in the Darien. Meanwhile, with Panamanian elections scheduled for April 2009, the U.S. Embassy took the opportunity to engage with donors and both national and local government on a more coordinated approach to solving the problem in the Darien.
The U.S. Ambassador to Panama, Barbara Stephenson, asked the Coordinator for Reconstruction & Stabilization to help facilitate an interagency assessment at her post in April 2009. The goal was to use the Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework (ICAF) to help evaluate the assumptions behind the Embassy’s approach to dealing with the deteriorating security situation in the Darien. The Coordinator sent a small team to Panama for three days to help the embassy in this effort.
With the Coordinator’s support, Ambassador Stephenson led the senior country team in a series of discussions on the topic of FARC incursions, the resulting growth in narco-criminal activity, and Panama’s ability to respond. The discussions were organized using the ICAF methodology, which provides a format for people with different perspectives to come to a common understanding of the dynamics that feed into and diminish conflict in a given context. The assessment exercise is designed to promote better coordination in the planning and execution of diplomatic, defense and development efforts undertaken by various agencies of the U.S. Government.
Ambassador Stephenson saw the ICAF as a way to examine assumptions about the sources of conflict in the area in order to develop a more effective strategy to support stabilization in the Darien region. The ICAF process, she noted, brought to the fore a number of different perspectives on Panama and the Darien. Formally examining these differing perspectives helped the embassy team establish a shared understanding of important influences in Panama and the Darien. These influences or factors included the indigenous leadership, a local sense of tradition and autonomy, and the rich resources and potential of the region, all of which serve to frame any prescription for an increased Panamanian government presence in the area.
As one embassy team member later commented, “it was very useful to have someone from outside come in and question our assumptions and ‘force’ us to defend our strategy from scratch. The assessment helped to purify our thinking on the issue, eliminating issues that while interesting and potentially important in a larger sense, were not central to our Darien strategy. The major pillars of our strategy (such as at-risk youth and community policing) were validated by the process, though our understanding of the major drivers of conflict was clarified, which helped us explain better what we were trying to do.”
Ambassador Stephenson later summed up the conclusions of the ICAF for the Los Angeles Times: “The situation in Panama,” she said, “argues for working with at-risk youth to prevent gang violence from taking root, and for training the police in community policing principles so they form strong ties with their communities -- a proven recipe for preventing crime.”
The outcome of Embassy Panama’s deliberations is exactly the type of approach the ICAF is designed to foster: an integrated, thoughtful and coordinated approach to drawing on the full range of U.S. resources, both civilian and military, represented in the embassy country team in order to help a country address challenges to its stability.