The Dallas Morning News July 4, 1999


Panama Canal a terrorist's dream
come true, say some officials worried about security after U.S. handoff

SOURCE: Latin America Bureau of The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE: Tod Robberson
BODY: Second in an occasional series

MIRAFLORES LOCKS, Panama - Knocking out the world's most strategic interoceanic waterway and placing a stranglehold on international commerce isn't really as hard as it might seem when viewed from the locks of the Panama Canal. Here, at the southernmost point linking the canal to the Pacific Ocean, a guide demonstrated how easy it is to gain direct access to the canal by sliding a simple, unlocked deadbolt on a wrought-iron garden gate. Nobody asked for IDs or security clearance. There were no weapons checks. The canal locks were only a few steps away.

In fact, for most of its 43-mile length, there is virtually nothing separating a sightseer or would-be saboteur from the waterway used by more than 13,000 ships each year to cross between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. And that is what is troubling security analysts and military strategists around the world.

The Panama Canal is a terrorist's dream come true, according to U.S. military officials and international security experts. The canal's vulnerability to attack is so high that the United States once maintained more than 70,000 troops to deter aggressors. Analysts say the presence of U.S. troops has had a tremendous deterrent effect on would-be saboteurs.

But on Dec. 31, the U.S. mandate to base military forces here will come to an end as the final phase of the 1979 Panama Canal Treaties is implemented. The United States is in the process of turning over $ 3.4 billion in assets, including 93,000 acres of military bases and 5,000 buildings, that once provided round-the-clock protection for the canal.

As of noon on New Year's Eve, responsibility for the canal's protection will rest solely in the hands of Panama, a nation of 2.8 million people that has not had a military since 1989, when U.S. forces invaded the isthmus to oust its dictator, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Turnover question

As the turnover date approaches, a number of security issues continue to trouble authorities of both countries. About 150 miles southeast of Panama City, guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are regularly staging forays into Panamanian territory. The rebels are known to operate bases in Panama and to use it as a transit point for arms shipments. Senior Panamanian officials acknowledge the country cannot do much to deter such rebel incursions.

Equally disturbing are the increasingly bold actions being staged deeper inside Colombia by guerrillas of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, who have attempted to attract world attention with hijackings and mass kidnappings. Analysts say it would be neither difficult nor inconceivable for the ELN to attempt a similar attention-getting move in Panama, although they note that there is little historical precedent for it.

The wild-eyed men of the world, the terrorists, don't always think in what we say are logical, intellectual terms," said retired Gen. Gordon Sumner, a former U.S. ambassador-at- large to Latin America. He is now at the forefront of an effort by archconservatives in Washington to have the Panama Canal Treaties annulled.

Although senior U.S. and Panamanian officials insist that the canal is not regarded as a major attack target for rogue nations or terrorist groups, Mr. Sumner contends that the canal remains vulnerable to anyone trying to attract world attention. " I've always said, if you want to get at the United States, you don't go attack the lion in the cage, you go down to Panama and attack Bambi," he said. A Latin America-based military expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a small commando unit could easily shut down the canal for a matter of months or years.

" It wouldn't be very hard. I could do it with a few guys," the expert said. A shoulder-fired, armor-piercing antitank missile could sink a ship at any of several locations and bring traffic to a complete standstill, he said. Each of the massive steel gates in the locks, which hold back the 52 million gallons of water used by each ship during a canal transit, could be disabled or blown open with a few pounds of plastic explosives. An attack on the Gatun Dam, which maintains the huge reservoir of water needed to feed the canal, could flood the canal and disable it for years, the military expert said.

Gen. Noriega and his predecessor, Gen. Omar Torrijos, reportedly maintained contingency plans for blowing up the Gatun Dam and mining the canal at other strategic points if the United States did not agree to open negotiations for the canal's reversion. " In my time, the most credible threat against the canal came from Panama itself," said retired Lt. Gen. Dennis P. McAuliffe, former head of the U.S. Southern Command and administrator of the canal during the 1980s. "Torrijos told us that "If we don't get a treaty, we'll simply destroy it.' " Former U.S. ambassador Robert Pastor, principal negotiator of the Panama Canal Treaties during the Carter administration, cited Panamanian threats against the canal as one of the primary factors inducing President Carter to set the U.S. withdrawal in motion.

One person with a suitcase full of dynamite could close the canal for three years by blowing up one set of locks," he said. "The Pentagon was well aware of the canal's indefensibility."

In February 1998, the environmental group Greenpeace demonstrated how easy it would be to seize a ship inside the canal. Members of the group used a motorboat and grappling hooks to board a British cargo ship carrying 38 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste as it entered the canal on the Atlantic side. The protesters chained themselves to a forward mast of the ship, unfurled a "Stop Plutonium" banner and remained on board until canal security personnel removed them at the canal's Gatun Locks.

Security measures

In an interview shortly before the Greenpeace action, canal administrator Alberto Aleman Zubieta insisted that current security measures were adequate to prevent an attack. "You cannot move around here without us knowing where you are," he said, describing monitoring devices throughout the canal as "very sophisticated." He added that the security force employed by the canal is equal to the kind of "high-tech industrial security force" that would be found at any U.S. airport or sensitive private facility.

Security threats to Panama extend far beyond extremist guerrilla groups. Colombian drug traffickers traditionally have used Panama as a primary transshipment point for cocaine and heroin, while they take advantage of Panama's dollar-based economy to launder billions in illicit profits. With the U.S. withdrawal, many experts are warning that drug lords could quickly fill the void.

When the last U.S. military element leaves Panama at noon on Dec. 31, 1999, that departure may create a vacuum which could threaten the efficient operation of the canal and the regional security in the strategic median of the Western Hemisphere," warned a 1997 analysis prepared for the National Defense University in Washington. "The greatest fear is of the Colombianization of Panama." The corrupting influence of drug trafficking and money laundering could reach epidemic proportions and have adverse effects on canal administration and operations," the Atlantic Council, a Panama-based think tank composed of businessmen and former U.S. military officers, warned in a report in March. "While such developments are unlikely, the risks are too great to ignore the possibility of worst-case scenarios."

China also plays a major role in assessments of the canal's vulnerability. A Hong Kong-based company, Hutchison-Whampoa, has purchased rights to develop ports at both the Pacific and Atlantic entrances to the Panama Canal. Although the company says the purchases constitute nothing more than a business venture, conservatives in Washington are warning that China could soon be in control of the canal.

"We created a vacuum in Panama, and people are filling it," Mr. Sumner said. "I don't blame the Chinese for taking advantage of that." They're trying to intercept the major sea lines of communication," said retired Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and another archconservative critic of the Panama Canal Treaties. The U.S. military withdrawal from Panama, Mr. Moorer added, "is the worst foreign policy blooper in the history of the United States from a national security standpoint."

Mike Booth, general manager of Panama Ports Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Hutchison-Whampoa, characterized the accusations being made against China and his company as absurd. It doesn't make any sense at all," he said. "We are an international company operating in 18 or 19 ports around the world."

Hutchison-Whampoa also operates a large port in Freeport, Bahamas, even closer to the U.S. mainland than Panama. But Mr. Booth said that, curiously, he has never heard American conservatives level the same kinds of accusations against the Bahamian operations.

Mr. McAuliffe also disagreed with the dire assessments. " It's just a lot of baloney," he said. "Yes, there are Red Chinese, and they are building ports at both ends of the canal. But the Taiwanese are there, too. That's business. Sure, you can point fingers and make a lot of noise. But it's a line that simply does not make sense."

Mr. McAuliffe noted that China is one of the main clients of the canal and would therefore be harming itself economically by attempting to seize or close the waterway.

Since the canal's opening in 1914, the United States and Panama have pledged to keep the waterway open to all nations, regardless of whether they are belligerents or declared enemies of either nation.

'Open to all'

Even during World War II, the United States guaranteed the unhindered passage through the canal of vessels from Germany and Japan, said Col. Dave Hunt, the chief U.S. liaison officer overseeing the canal's reversion to Panama. "Our policy at that time is the same as it is today," he said. "As long as they're making a peaceful passage, the canal is open to all." A section of the Panama Canal Treaties, Col. Hunt added, guarantees the United States the right to intervene militarily should any nation or other aggressor threaten the canal's operations. Ironically, the only time in the canal's history that it has been closed by military force was at U.S. insistence during the 1989 invasion.

Today, in anticipation of the U.S. departure, major shipping lines and insurers have commissioned studies of the potential effects of the canal's closure on international cargo routes, the Latin America military expert said. Alternatives for most shippers are not attractive. They include unloading cargo and shipping it by rail from one ocean port to the other, or diverting ships up to 5,000 miles around the tip of South America, which can add three weeks or more to a voyage.

The effect on U.S. commerce would be significant, given that 13 percent of all U.S. seaborne trade transits the canal. The canal is far less crucial for Asian trade, however. A ship traveling from southern China to New York would add only 50 to 100 miles to the voyage by crossing the Indian Ocean and transiting the Suez Canal, compared with crossing the Pacific and using the Panama Canal. At least in theory, critics say, China could shut down the canal and still ship its goods without major delays.

Mr. Aleman, the canal administrator, insisted the waterway will remain safe and threat-free once the United States has withdrawn.

"The canal is neutral. It is open for every country to use it," he said. "Yes, there are always crazy people out there . . . but I don't think you need an army to protect it."

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