Printer Friendly

The Panama Canal: 75 years of security history.


THIS YEAR THE PANAMA CANAL CELEbrates its diamond jubilee. After 75 years of operation and 700,000 transits, the canal continues to offer safe and efficient service to the maritime industry. The security of the canal is critical to maintaining the customer confidence that promotes such use.

Canal security measures have changed over the years, reflecting developments in armament and changes in the threat and in the very nature of war. The big guns that first guarded the Pacific and Atlantic approaches to the canal are long gone. The antiaircraft guns and searchlights of World War II are gone, as are the barrage balloons and smoke generators. HAWK missiles came and went in the 1960s.

Perhaps all that has not changed is the canal's vulnerability to sabotage and terrorism. Combating these threats requires the vigilance of a trained proprietary security force and the dynamic and intertwining associations of the international community, in whose interest it is to keep the canal an open and neutral avenue for world commerce. The waterway's reputation for security has endured the current political and economic strife in the Republic of Panama and that country's strained relationship with the United States. Vessel traffic is undiminished.

Since the SS Ancon made the first official transit through the Panama Canal in 1914, more than 4 billion long tons of the world's goods have been dafely carried through the waterway despite two world wars, the Korean conflict, and the recent escalation of regional tensions and international terrorism.

The security and defense of the water route through the isthmus have been key to its successful operation. In fact, security of the forerunner of the canal, a land route through the isthmus called the Camino Real (Gold Road), began with the Spanish Empire. Fort San Lorenzo, crowning a steep cliff at the mouth of the Chagres River, was perhaps the most strategically located and violently contested Spanish fortification of that era. It defended the Caribbean approach to the Gold Road, through which great wealth transited. This was the back door to Panama City, since the easiest and quickest route across the isthmus was up the Chagres River to the village of Cruces, then along the Las Cruces trail on foot or by mule to Panama City.

When the Panama Railroad replaced the Las Cruces trail in 1855 (hastened by the 1849 California gold rush), gangs of thieves and murderers were roaming the country. The government of New Granada granted full powers to the railroad company to police the isthmus. The railroad hired one "Run" Runnels, an ex-Texas Ranger. Using frontier methods and commanding a posse of Mexicans, Chileans, blacks, and Asiatic immigrants, he cornered criminals of every shade and strung them up in batches of 30 and 40 along the seawall at Panama City. Professional banditry soon lost its popularity.

The subsequent ease of crossing the isthmus resulted in a vastly increased number of travelers. By 1856, rioting had broken out among the many diverse groups in Panama City, and US Marines were sent in to maintain law and order.

At the beginning of the Panamanian revolution in November 1903, several hundred marines and sailors landed from the US warships Nashville and Dixie to protect railroad property. Their presence was critical to the Panamanian independence movement.

A treaty between the United States and the newly created Republic of Panama permitting the building of the Panama Canal was subsequently signed. The 1903 treaty also gave the United States unilateral responsibility for defense of the canal and created the Canal Zone, a 5-mile-wide strip along the canal route, ocean to ocean, controlled exclusively by the United States. The first US troops permanently stationed on the isthmus were a battalion of Marines, who arrived in 1904 to protect the Panama railroad and safeguard the construction of the canal.

As the canal was built, its defenses were planned by the Army-Navy Fortifications Board. An on-site survey was conducted by the Army in 1910, and the actual building of the fortifications began in 1911. The plan contemplated a two-part defense consisting of strongly constructed and heavily armed fortifications at both canal entrances. These positions would be armed with artillery that would outrange or at least equal the range of any known naval weapon of the day. The fortifications could thus engage a hostile naval force before it came within effective range of port facilities or the canal's locks.

To supplement these fortifications, field installations staffed by a mobile force would be constructed near the canal's locks for close-in defense against an invasion force. As part of the initial defense plan, in 1911 and 1912 the United States built Forts Sherman, Randolph, and DeLesseps on the Atlantic side of the Canal Zone and Fort Grant (consisting of the islands of Naos, Perico, Culebra, and Flamenco) and Fort Amador on the Pacific side.

The batteries consisted of massive concrete emplacements for mounting giant artillery guns and bunkers for ammunition storage, communications, plotting, and fire control rooms. The most powerful and effective weapons then known were installed in those batteries. The three Atlantic forts were armed with four 14-in. rifles, six 6-in. rifles, and 16 12-in. mortars. The islands of Fort Grant at the Pacific entrance were equipped with six 14-in. rifles, two 6-in. rifles, 12 12-in. mortars, and one 16-inch rifle, the highest caliber weapon in the world at the time. In addition, in 1917 four 6-in. rifles were mounted in two batteries at Fort Amador near the site of the present-day officers' club.

Fort Amador housed the Coast Artillery units that worked the big guns at Fort Grant and Fort Amador. As additional defense measures, mine fields were plotted (and mines were kept ready for placement in an emergency), and 60-in. searchlights were installed to facilitate night firing. The first US Army troops, a regiment of the 10th Infantry, arrived in the Canal Zone in 1911 to form the nucleus of the mobile force. That regiment (along with the Marine battalion that had been in the Canal Zone since 1904 except for when it had been withdrawn in 1914 for action against Pancho Villa at Vera Cruz, Mexico) operated as the Panama Canal Guard under the Isthmian Canal Commission. The 10th Infantry was followed by additional infantry, artillery, signal, and engineer units augmenting the 18 Coast Artillery companies that arrived between 1913 and 1917 to staff the coastal fortifications.

With the transition from construction to operation of the canal, command and control of canal defenses were centralized for improved coordination with military command authorities in the continental United States. World War I, then raging in Europe, accelerated action to create a comprehensive security plan for this key link in the US "two-ocean Navy" strategy.

Accordingly, by the end of 1914 military forces were redesignated as United States Army Forces in the Canal Zone, with a US Army general officer in command under the Eastern US War Department. The role of the military thus changed from primarily maintaining law and order in the canal construction force to protecting the canal against external threats.

THREE DAYS AFTER THE UNITED States formally declared war on the European Central Powers on April 9, 1917, the commanding general of the Army forces in the Canal Zone was given authority over the operation of the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone government by presidential order. Two months later, the Panama Canal Department was established as a separate geographic command with headquarters at Quarry Heights. Units included the 19th Brigade, composed of the 14th and 33d Infantry, the 42d Field Artillery, the 11th Engineers, and special troops.

By 1921, some 4,000 troops were stationed in the Canal Zone, including the 1,800 members of the Coast Artillery. When the war ended, authority over the Canal Zone civilian government and operation of the Panama Canal was reinstated in the Office of the Governor. It was not until World War II that the commanding general of the Panama Canal Department would again be given control of the Canal Zone.

BETWEEN 1924 AND 1928, DEFENSES of the canal were further strengthened. Two 14-in. railways guns were placed on the tracks spanning the isthmus for deployment at either end of the canal, and four 16-in. guns were placed at Fort Kobbe on the Pacific side.

Four more 12-in. guns were added to the armament at Fort Sherman, and close-in defense of coastal fortifications was improved with 75 mm and 155 mm guns. As the threat of attack from the air grew, antiaircraft guns were also added to the already formidable defenses. In 1923, Panama Canal Department strength had increased to 9,300. By 1934 it had almost doubled.

Maneuvers in those peacetime years demonstrated the need for better trained harbor defense troops and improved antiaircraft defenses for the rapidly developing air threat. Spreading antiaircraft defenses all across the isthmus was recommended. The idea of mobile batteries and searchlights outside the Canal Zone was also conceived.

During the 1930s, events in Europe and technological developments, such as the aircraft carrier and the long-range bomber, began to challenge the old axioms on which canal defense was based. Potential air bases from which an attack against the canal might be launched came into being with the growth of commercial aviation in Central and South America. Although sabotage remained the most likely danger, air strikes by land-based or carrier-based aircraft came to be regarded by the late 1930s as the most serious threat.

As war threatened, construction for more modern defenses was pushed ahead. An extensive road-building project was started, and Albrook Field was built on the Pacific side in late 1931 to supplement France Field, located on the Atlantic side of the isthmus. In 1939, military strength in the Canal Zone was almost 14,000 and had doubled to 28,000 by early 1940. As the blitzkrieg flashed across Europe, the threat of a sudden air and sea attack became real. Canal Zone defenses were built up at a feverish pitch.

FOLLOWING THE ATTACK ON PEARL Harbor, ground and air troops were rushed into the Caribbean theater to strengthen defenses and provide task forces for possible entry into Central and South America. Peak strength was reached in December 1942 with 68,000 troops stationed in Panama. The 6th Air Force provided air defense from bases all over the republic. Inside the Canal Zone hundreds of antiaircraft and automatic weapons batteries were manned. These batteries, with weapons ranging from 30-caliber machine guns to 3-in. antiaircraft cannons, protected the locks, canal, military installations, and interior approaches to the canal.

At strategic points such as canal locks, barrage balloons were used to provide cover against dive bombardment. A smoke screen could also be produced for additional cover. The Trans-Isthmian Highway linking the Atlantic and Pacific coasts was completed by the Army in April 1942. It permitted rapid movement of troops and supplies in tactical situations. Additional roads were built to training areas and interior antiaircraft gun positions. During the war, transit guards boarded vessels to protect against possible hostile actions by ship crews. Shipping losses to U-boats lurking in the Caribbean totaled 1,550,000 tons in 1942 but dropped to 178,000 tons by 1943.

In the fall of 1942, the change in the general war situation was reflected in the strength of the Caribbean Defense Command. Japan had suffered a number of major defeats in the southwest Pacific, reducing the threat of attack. Brazil had entered the war on the side of the Allies, and the danger of air raids and Axis-inspired revolutions in South America were greatly reduced. Great Britain and the United States controlled the Atlantic. These factors, together with the need for the rapid forward deployment of all available troops to other theaters, dictated a halt in the expansion of Caribbean forces and the beginning of a reduction.

The remaining large coastal defense guns were scrapped and the fortifications abandoned, as were the many landing fields (leased to the United States for the duration of the war) located throughout the Republic of Panama and other fields near the fortifications were mine fields near the fortifications were cleared, and Forts Randolph and DeLesseps were inactivated.

FOLLOWING WORLD WAR II, THE Caribbean theater was reorganized into the US Army Caribbean (USARCARIB). With the outbreak of the Korean conflict in June 1950, the commanding general of USARCARIB placed the command in a modified alert status. That status included increased security at Army installations and assignment of Army guards to vital Panama Canal installations, the latter at the request of the governor. Antiaircraft units were prepared to occupy tactical positions on order. From June 1950 to July 1952 the military guard provided internal security at Miraflores, Pedro Miguel, and Gatun Locks.

On July 11, 1952, this mission changed to perimeter surveillance of the lock areas to prevent unauthorized entry, with the Panama Canal civilian lock guards assuming the mission of internal security. This change permitted an economy of force while increasing the protection of the locks. The Army continued to help protect the canal by furnishing transit guards aboard hazardous ships.

In September 1960, new air defense weapons, namely the HAWK ground-to-air missiles, were brought to the Canal Zone to replace the 90 mm and 120 mm antiaircraft weapons. Two HAWK-AW batteries were stationed in the Canal Zone at Flamenco Island and Fort Sherman. All the missiles were removed as the 1960s drew to a close.

On June 6, 1963, the Caribbean command was redesignated as the United States Southern Command (US-SOUTHCOM) with the Army component of the joint forces under US-SOUTHCOM becoming the United States Army Southern (USARSO), located at Fort Clayton, Panama. The 193d Infantry Brigade was designated USARSO's quick-reaction combat force. This unit was composed of airborne, mechanized, and infantry units, enabling it to attack from the air, by amphibious landing, or by rapid encirclement on the ground.

Between 1946 and 1974, total military strength in Panama fluctuated between 6,600 and 20,300 (the lowest strength occuring in 1959). Since 1975, total US military strength in Panama has been maintained at approximately 10,000.

FROM THE EARLIEST DAYS OF VITAL installation security (presumably beginning when the locks were first fenced during the late 1920s), civilian guards and the Canal Zone Police were closely associated. In 1936, as war approached, lock watch personnel were placed under the operational control of the Police and Fire Division. In 1941, to improve security and administration, they were transferred to the Police and Fire Division outright. During World War II, the US Army occupied the locks and adjacent areas and protected the installations. By the end of the war in 1945, authorization was given to substitute civilian watch personnel. A force of 30 guards and two sergeants was formed under the superintendent of the Locks Division. That force bore responsibility for all lock security and was backed up by the Canal Zone Police.

On July 11, 1952, full responsibility for the internal security of the locks was shifted from military to civilian guards following the end of hostilities in Korea. The newly created Locks Security Force was composed of 58 carefully selected veterans. Their mission was the "protection of the locks against wanton damage, espionage, sabotage, or any other detrimental action."

Following the 1964 Canal Zone/Panama border riots (over the sovereignty issue with Panama), the security force was expanded by about 20 guards to protect the dams and generating stations. In December 1975, following a staff study approved by the Canal Zone governor, all 10 Panama Canal Company guard forces (assigned to different operating units) were consolidated into the newly created Canal Protection Division (CPD). This consolidation was designed to unify and strengthen security under one division responsible for plant protection in the Panama Canal.

Since implementation of the Panama Canal Treaty and the elimination of the Canal Zone Police, the division has been solely responsible for this protection. The CPD was originally headed by ex-Canal Zone police officers who organized it along police lines. Division strength at the time of consolidation was around 200. Early challenges included adoption of uniform methods and procedures and development of cohesiveness.

WHEN THE PANAMA CANAL Treaty went into effect on October 1, 1979, US and Panamanian forces began a new arrangement for the combined defense of the Panama Canal. The treaty establishes an overall framework under which operation and defense of the canal gradually pass from the United States to Panama over the remainder of the century.

Within this framework is a complex and delicate set of provisions describing a cooperative military arrangement. The fundamental concept is that the United States retains primary responsibility for defense until the treaty expires at noon, Panama time, December 31, 1999. Under ideal conditions, defense responsibility is to be shared increasingly with Panama Defense Forces (PDF) until that time. After that date, the United States and Panama will continue jointly to guarantee the canal's permanent neutrality without any US military presence in the country. However, the United States retains the right to act unilaterally to protect the canal and maintain its neutrality. These provisions reflect the basic US interest of keeping the canal open for the benefit of all nations, rather than any intention of owning it.

Under the treaty, the Panama Canal Commission is responsible for operating and maintaining the Panama Canal. Through the CPD, the commission employs security officers to protect selected canal installations. CPD officers may bear only handguns, and they do not have general police powers. However, they may temporarily detain persons believed to be committing or to have just committed an offense against applicable laws or regulations - in effect, a citizen's arrest. Because of this limited security function, the commission depends on the US armed forces for full-scale defense of the canal's vital installations when threat conditions so dictate.

The mission of the CPD is to protect vital installations and facilities. In addition, the division is responsible for emergency preparedness and physical security programs. The division employs a protective force of 300 uniformed personnel organized into two branches located at both ends of the canal. The first priority is to secure the most critical canal installations: locks, dams, power generation stations, communications systems, the marine traffic control center, key administration buildings, and industrial and support facilities.

Security is provided around the clock, 365 days per year at about 75 patrol areas spread over the 50-mile-long canal operating area. Protective force functions cover the full range of security activities with emphasis on maintaining high visibility and strict entry controls at guarded installations. Because of the physical dispersion of many outlying facilities, increasing emphasis has been placed on mobile patrolling. Guards are rotated every 30 days from installation to installation to avoid overfamiliarity with the work force and lassitude from the monotony of the same physical location. Patrol areas within installations are also rotated. The force communicates through a UHF radio network with all guard personnel.

Basic entry requirements for guard force recruits are two years of security experience or military duty or four years of university study. In recent years, however, an upward mobility program has been used to recruit Panama Canal Commission (PCC) personnel with less extensive qualifications. All new hires receive a three-week basic security training course, which is supplemented annually with refresher training including revolver qualification. Major problems include maintaining the quality of the guard force under changed hiring practices and meeting the exponential increase in demand for security.

United States Army South regularly conducts field training exercises to test the contingency plans in which the CPD participates. At the request of the PCC administrator, USSOUTHCOM conducted a canal security assessment in 1982. Recommendations emphasized the need for increasing the number of staff at the most critical installations as well as increasing security awareness. Recent international events have also contributed to a developing concern for greater protection in the community and the workplace.

One of the major outcomes of the Southern Command study was the development of a comprehensive physical security survey program designed to upgrade security hardware and systems at all vital installations. Since its inception, this program has identified hardware requirements and funds have been programmed for the purchase and installation of all types of security devices - in particular, those that extend the field of vision of the guard, such as closed-circuit television. The goal is to keep the canal abreast with industry standards.

To identify protection requirements better, Profitect Inc., a security consulting firm, was contracted in 1988 to advise on hardware and human force needs. Profitect's most important recommendation was the need for installation of security control centers (SCCs) on both sides of the isthmus to monitor PCC security systems. This $4 million project was recently approved and will vastly enhance the CPD's ability to communicate with, command, and control its disparate security operations.

The remoteness of some locations guarded by the CPD sometimes proves a hardship on protective force personnel. One unique assignment was to guard White Amur fingerlings in a small holding lake in the jungle. These weed-eating oriental carp were being used for an experiment in aquatic weed control. The CPD's job was to guard the net preventing their premature release into the main lake (Gatun). One night a frantic radio call was received from the guard on the assignment. He shrieked that he had been attacked by someone and requested immediate backup. When the supervisor arrived he discovered the assailant was a spider monkey that had jumped on the guard's back while the guard was in his shack.

A similar incident occurred a few years ago. The sole female guard employed by the CPD summarily quit following a night shift at the Cerro Pelado dynamite magazine, located in the same jungle area. She claimed she had been chased by a tiger while patrolling the bunkers and adamantly refused to work as a guard anymore. The remoteness and variety of the installations the CPD protects are unique and challenging security assignments for its officers.

UNDER THE TERMS OF THE PANAMA Canal Treaty, the US government will continue to operate the canal until the year 2000. More than half the guard force now is Panamanian, and Panamanian guards are rapidly replacing retiring US veterans. By the turn of the century the canal work force will be virtually 100 percent Panamanian. Panamanian employees are now being trained so they will be prepared to take over the operation of the canal.

When the canal is transferred to Panama at the close of this century, the government of Panama will assume primary responsibility for canal security, although the interests of the United States and the entire maritime community will still be protected under the neutrality treaty.

According to published data, the Panama Defense Forces (PDF) has increased to over 10,000 uniformed members, about 70 percent being various types of police (including investigations and traffic departments) and 30 percent infantry or special unit members. Infantry units include the new "Batallon 2000," which reportedly will assume the primary mission of canal defense in the year 2000. Eight other infantry companies are strategically stationed around the republic to provide general security, public order and riot control, civic action, counterinsurgency, and border surveillance.

In addition, Panama has military police; special forces; a presidential guard; and antiterrorist, commando, cavalry, and engineer units, as well as small air force and navy branches. The air force has about 40 rotary and fixed-wing aircraft including about 10 propeller-driven close air support fighters. The navy has a limited number of harbor and river patrol boats and LCM-8s with mainly a brown water capability. Tactical concepts, training, organization, and equipment largely follow US Army doctrine as tailored to local needs and conditions. PDF capabilities for conventional warfare are limited, but it excels at unconventional, antiguerilla, counterterrorism, and low-intensity conflict operations. Its strategic geographical dispersement; control of border, port, and airport entry points; intelligence-gathering capability; and cultural background make it well suited to handle the types of threats now predominant in the region.

Panama's identification with the Third World and reported close association with regional leftist governments may have protected the republic from acts of terrorism and subversion sponsored by these regimes. For the same reason, the treaty mandate removing US troops from Panama may further protect the canal from international terrorism directed against US regional interests. The fact that the canal is now a joint US and Panamanian enterprise has probably offered some protection against that threat already.

The current impasse between the United States and the Noriega-backed Panamanian government has the potential for a deep and long-lasting impact on binational and military relations. A long-term standoff may make difficult an orderly transition and the fulfillment of commitments after the year 2000. In addition, it would likely endanger aspirations for any new arrangement with Panama for extended US base rights.

PHOTO : Vessel passes through the canal on its way to the Pacific Ocean. The mules, electrified railroad locomotives, are attached by two wires each to passing ships to guide the vessels, safely through the locks. For the largest ships, as many as eight of these small but powerful locomotives may be used.

PHOTO : The ancient guns of Spanish Fort San Lorenzo are silent sentinels guarding the mouth of the Chagres River, primary supply for the canal's waterway.

Charles Morris is chief of the Canal Protection Division and is a member of ASIS.
COPYRIGHT 1989 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Morris, Charles
Publication:Security Management
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Previous Article:Internal injury.
Next Article:Cutting risks down to size.

Related Articles
Group studies Caribbean-Pacific link as one alternative to Panama Canal.
Panama at a new watershed.
A canal makes history.
R.S.V.P. or S.O.S?
Canal Party.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters