Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said on Monday that the Colombian guerrilla group FARC controlled 25 percent of the Darién Gap, along the Panamanian frontier with Colombia, in 2009. The testimony followed news that the first coca plantation in Central America had been found and destroyed in the same region last month, according to the Spanish newspaper El País.
“When I arrived in office in 2009, 25 percent of Darién was controlled by the FARC,” Martinelli told the Panamanian Congress, adding, “today I can say that Panama is totally sovereign over 100 percent of its land.”
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are currently in negotiations with the Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos to put an end to more than 40 years of violence.
Darién has been a conflict zone for Panama, not only because of the presence of guerrilla forces but also because of drug trafficking.
On June 18, a joint operation between Panamanian authorities and the Colombia military destroyed nearly 5,000 coca plants in the area and a laboratory to process the plants into cocaine. The facility had the ability to process 30 kilograms of cocaine, reported El País.
Carlos Alvarado Valverde, director of the Costa Rican Drug Institute, told the newspaper that the find was not surprising, considering the presence of coca plantations on the Colombian side of the border.
InSight Crime, a nonprofit research center, noted that the Darién Gap is used as an operational base by the 57th Front of the FARC, a branch of the guerrilla group involved in international cocaine trafficking. The center suggested that the FARC’s presence in the area makes it likely that the guerrillas are involved if not complicit with the coca plantation discovered.
InSight Crime added that coca cultivation in Ecuador has also been attributed to the FARC.
Martinelli said, “In the presence of weak state structures, criminal organizations grew,” and noted that the majority of the countries in the region face “escalating violence, increased crime and the presence of organized crime.”
“It’s our duty to fight against a new class of sophisticated and organized criminals who have no respect for the law or the constitution,” the president said.
Official figures estimate that 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States passes through Central America from South America.
During 2012, Panama seized some 35 tons of drugs compared to 39 tons in 2011, according to official records. The largest seizures, however, took place in 2009 and 2010 with 54 tons each year.
Panamanian authorities reported a drop in the movement of drugs through their national waters thanks to police presence and “Operation Hammer,” a multinational anti-drug initiative launched by the United States and Central America in 2012.
The Darién Gap is a nearly impassable stretch of thick jungle along Panama’s western border with Colombia. Known for its lawlessness and isolation, the terrain is so rugged that it remains the only break in the Inter-American Highway, which otherwise stretches interrupted from Alaska to Argentina.