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Security is Major Concern Along Panama Canal - 2003-01-29


Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, authorities in Panama have stepped up security at their nation's transoceanic canal and they are now working closely with international agencies to coordinate efforts to monitor ships and shipments passing their way. The heavy traffic through the canal makes for a daunting security challenge.

The Panama Canal is a vital link in the world's commercial transportation system and anything that would disrupt traffic through its locks and channels would have a heavy impact on the world economy. Around 12 percent of U.S. seagoing commerce passes through the canal and it is heavily used by both European and Asian nations as well.

Officials of the Panama Canal Authority, which has been in Panamanian hands since the canal was officially turned over by the United States at the end of 1999, are working closely with the Panamanian government to protect the canal.

Juan Hector Diaz, director of security for the Canal Authority, says he and his team are working to prevent any attack on what is clearly Panama's most important asset.

He said the canal is probably not as great a target for terrorists today because it no longer belongs to the United States and is in the hands of a small nation. Nevertheless, he added canal security officials and Panamanian government officials remain vigilant and are working to improve security. He said they realize the importance of the canal to world commerce and the possibility, therefore, that it could be a target.

Keeping watch on the 80-kilometer-long waterway is a challenge in itself, but even harder is keeping track of the hundreds of ships and the estimated one million cargo containers that pass through the canal each year. Inspectors can examine only a small fraction of the containers and Canal Security Officer Sergio Rodriguez said they must rely to a great extent on the information supplied by shippers.

He pointed out that canal authorities will be helped greatly by new rules approved by the International Maritime Organization. He said they will soon be able to track a shipment from its point of origin to its arrival at the canal and thereby minimize the prospect of dangerous or unidentified cargo passing through.

Another concern for international law enforcement as well as Panamanian officials is the number of ships registered in Panama, as well as the large number of seafarers who are licensed here. Panama has the world's largest merchant marine fleet, partly because of its comparatively lax registration system. There are some 6,500 freighters registered in Panama and the country has also issued identification cards to more than 285,000 sailors and ship workers from around the world.

U.S. law enforcement officials worry that terrorists might be able to obtain seafarer cards, which allow their holders to disembark at a U.S. port without actually having a visa. There have been a number of recent cases in which Panamanian investigators have discovered officials taking bribes to issue licenses to unauthorized people.

But Panamanian officials say they are fully cooperating with the United States and other nations in the effort to prevent terrorism, not only at the canal's channels, locks and ports, but anywhere else in the world that the canal serves.

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