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FORT BENNING, GA – The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to adapt to a new construct. From online distance learning, virtual recognition ceremonies, and now hosting teleconferencing events, WHINSEC has leaned forward forging new pathways in a virtual world. Following the Institute's motto, Siempre Listos (Always Ready), a Law Enforcement working group lead by Panamanian National Police Commissioner Cenen Castillo, WHINSEC Law Enforcement Deputy-Commandant hosted virtual meetings with Police Attachés of Latin America, Agregados Policiales de América Latina (APALA), on April 21 & 28, 2020. The themes of the virtual gatherings were "Policing in the COVID19 Environment" and "Transnational Threats in the Context of COVID19," respectively.

"The exchanges had a purpose for us. As an Institute, to gain a better understanding the many challenges faced by Western Hemisphere countries, their best practices, lessons learned, and priorities in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. We will consider adapting our lesson plans and even offering additional courses at WHINSEC", said Castillo, who is also a partner nation instructor. Castillo added, "More importantly, it allowed the participants, to learn from each other, and share success stories during this critical period. These outreach events allows participants to "virtually-meet" each other and establish new ties among the hemisphere's international law enforcement community.”

The virtual meetings included law enforcement attaches from; Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama, and Peru. Additionally, representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigations joined the group during the second gathering on April 28th to gain knowledge and share their perspectives. Among WHINSEC representatives were Brazil COL Wilian Kamei (Military Vice Commandant), Costa Rica COL Walter Navarro (Office of Alumni Relations), Mr. Joseph Nieto (State Department Representative), Dr. Edwin Roldan (School of Professional Military Education), MAJ Julio Rivera (Leadership and Tactics School Director), and partner nation police instructors MAJ Herrera (Colombia), and MAJ Gante (Panama).

In the first meeting, each country presented demographics and effects of COVID19 facing their forces and measures implemented. Participants discussed implementing technology to reduce in-person interactions and re-purposing equipment, such as using riot-control vehicles equipped with water dispersion systems for decontamination purposes. Most importantly, the benefit to create task forces and the integration of other agencies to communicate among all involved keeping the public informed. The discussion enabled closer cooperation among security forces (military and police) not only tasked with maintaining public order and enforcing restrictions, but also working with intergovernmental and non-governmental agencies to assist populations in need.  In many cases, the Attaches mentioned WHINSEC training in joint operations played a key part with executing their plans. This collective body of knowledge and experience by officers enabled successful operations in their respective country. It also facilitated the cross-border resolution of emerging issues.

A common theme among the group was the decrease in migration during the repatriation of their citizens. The significant increase in cyber crime and the continuation of transnational criminal activities were also mentioned. The evolution of their functions, such as policy modifications made for the use of force and new legal mechanisms for enforcement of restrictions limiting citizens' rights. The previous concerns lead the group to develop a future human rights-focused teleconference.

In the second meeting, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation joined the discussion. The common threat observed by most countries is the flexibility of transnational criminal organizations to adapt to the global restriction of public movement, under this unprecedented situation. The limitation of movement leading to citizens' inability to earn an income is a void criminal organizations are trying to fill.

Criminal organizations have taken advantage of the limited to non-existing presence of weak governments in under-governed areas by providing for people in need. Thus they have improved their standing and trust with vulnerable populations, gaining new addicts and recruits. Criminal organizations are securing old territory while seeking new revenue streams. At the same time, early release of criminals from overpopulated penitentiaries also worries law enforcement. These pressures added while security forces are combating COVID-19 and enforcing lock-downs in populated areas.

The best practices discussed to counteract these transnational threats were the use of Joint Task Forces with judicial, investigative authorities. Excellent communication and trust between the inter-agencies and with other countries are critical for success. Strategic alliances at all levels are also beneficial to combat transnational threats.  While practicing good mission command, the executive powers must grant their forces and agencies the authority to do their job without political interference. Considering organized crime is an illicit business always looking for alternatives, we must do the same when we employ our limited government resources. Combining precise agencies to reach the right balance to combat threats.

The challenges in combating these transnational threats start internally, corruption, political interference, and a lack of trust among agencies or other countries. The need to protect the population, their rights, freedoms, and the ability to provide for their families under these circumstances added challenges. Others include a limited legal framework that allows countries to work with others, explicitly sharing information and intelligence. Internal mutual support is the necessary first step to combat these threats, and then geopolitical synergy through international cooperation, which should achieve incremental success.

Commissioner Christian Serón Leal, Police Attache, Chilean Embassy in the U.S., commented, "Both panels were beneficial to understand the different realities of LATAM countries. We realize many times; our experiences intersect with similar situations. Listening to ethical practices and initiatives resulted in evaluating and transmitting our Security Institutions, and which methods may be realistic to apply or adjust."