Panama's Balancing Act: Security vs. Land Rights

At dawn, Lorencita Arias gathers together her cooking pots, plastic sheeting, and machete, and makes off through the sand-covered streets in this town in Darien Province. Then she and her husband set off in small wooden boat through the reef-protected sea on a two-hour trip to their farm in Puerto Escoces, Panama.

This routine is common among many of the Kuna Indian families. But the tribe fears their traditional way of life could be threatened by a planned US-backed naval station near their lands. Rather than protecting them, the Indians think the Navy base could open up their lands to conflict between Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries who frequently cross the border.

The issue has become one of national security versus land rights: Panamanian officials say the base is needed to keep Colombia's drug trade and civil war from spilling over the border. But the Indians are concerned they may get caught in the cross hairs.

Officials at the US Agency for International Development say the US will not provide funding for the base unless the Indians give their approval, something that seems highly unlikely. In February, the Kuna General Congress officially rejected Puerto Escoces as a possible site. "If they install the base, the indigenous communities that live nearby Puerto Escoces would be exposed to attacks from guerrillas," the KGC said in a statement.

Indians in Sasardi-Mulatupu have vowed open insurrection if the base is constructed in Puerto Escoces. For Mrs. Arias, the issue boils down to land rights: "If the base plan is pushed through, we will fight for our land."

But such are their concerns about the area's security that Panamanian officials told journalists that they are proceeding over the Indians' objections.

Vandalism and two kidnappings by paramilitaries in the Darien in the past six months has both the Indians and the National Police worried about general security. Like the Kunas, the police shy away from confrontations with guerrillas and paramilitary units. A helicopter base - also with US-backing - has just been established in Metiti, near the Colombian border, and 100 police are currently being trained to beef up security.

Police believe that Colombian rebels have a base on Mt. Tacacruna - situated just inside the Panamanian frontier - and that they are involved in drug production and smuggling. Police pilots are wary of straying into the airspace around Tacacruna, for fear of being shot down.

Sightings of Colombian rebels are common in the Darien, even miles away from the border. "They pass quite often in the night, in units of five or 10, but sometimes in large numbers," says Horacio Quintano, the director of a small Indian village two days' walk from the border.

Colombian rebels have long sought shelter in Darien, its thick mountainous forests providing the perfect cover. But paramilitary incursions are a new, ominous development that worries many people in the region.

"It [the base] won't affect us, but problems between guerrillas and paramilitaries would," says Pedro Sunigar, a canoa captain.

Kuna islanders suspect that many of the crews of Colombian canoas - trading boats that supply basic contraband items like cigarettes and instant coffee to the Kunas - often transport paramilitaries and are involved in both drug and arms smuggling.

Both the Panamanian government and the Kunas are striving to keep Colombia's civil war at bay. Panama's border police - who currently number around 100 - lack resources and manpower to properly police the area. The Indians wisely distance themselves from the conflict and from confrontations with drug cartels.

But if remaining independent in Darien's forests is no easy business, maintaining security is harder still. As Jose Luis Sosa, a former intelligence officer points out: "Colombia has an Army of over 100,000 and they haven't been able to defend much for the past 30 years."

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