PANAMA CITY, Panama – The Republic of Panama is a bridge that connects the Americas. Its renowned canal is one of the most strategic waterways in the world. It also is a key security cooperation partner for the United States, the National Guard’s top general said during a recent visit to the country.
Panama is paired with the Missouri National Guard in the Defense Department’s National Guard State Partnership Program, an affiliation that has helped form deep relationships and now looks to the future.
“There are challenges throughout the Western Hemisphere that Panama is not immune to, and, in many cases, Panama and the U.S. have shared interests and concerns,” said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, National Guard Bureau chief. “It’s important to us to ensure that Panama remains a secure, prosperous and democratic country, which is why we value our mutually beneficial partnership so much.”
The State Partnership Program was established in 1993 to help emerging democracies in Europe. It now includes 100 nations partnered with the National Guard of every state, territory and the District of Columbia.
Panama and Missouri entered the SPP in 1996 as part of the first group of partnerships in U.S. Southern Command. This SPP relationship supports key U.S. interests, including maintaining access to the Panama Canal, combating trafficking of drugs and people, and disaster response.
Eighteen U.S. states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have active partnerships with defense and security forces from 30 nations in the Caribbean and Central and South America.
SOUTHCOM is one of the nation’s six geographically focused unified commands, with responsibility for this area and security cooperation with defense and public-security forces in the region.
“At SOUTHCOM, the State Partnership Program is an incredibly valuable tool,” Army Gen. Laura Richardson, SOUTHCOM’s commander, told hundreds of Guard and partner nation officials at the SPP 30th anniversary conference in July. “Each and every day, our SOUTHCOM campaign plan and security cooperation objectives are achieved.”
Guardsmen have participated in exercises and operations in Central America and Panama since the 1970s, but U.S. ties to this area extend further.
The United States established diplomatic relations with Panama in 1903 following its declaration of independence from Colombia. Panama’s location and role in global trade make its success vital to U.S. prosperity and national security.
Panama’s constitution prohibits a traditional military, to promote stability and prevent the misuse of military power. Instead, Panama maintains a public security force for internal security and state sovereignty defense.
Panamanian Public Forces focus on law enforcement, border control and maritime security. Panama’s key location along major land and sea transit routes also makes it a critical partner in the interdiction of illegal drugs destined for the United States.
As part of a larger itinerary in Central and South America to nurture National Guard relationships, deepen understanding of challenges and seek new opportunities in the region, Hokanson met with Panama’s Minister of Public Security Juan Manuel Pino Forero, who described Panama as the first filter of potential northward contraband.
“Everything that goes up by air, land and sea, we are focused on that,” Pino said. “We need a lot of support.”
The Missouri Guard provides a share of that support through the SPP. Missouri Guardsmen train alongside their Panamanian counterparts in Panama and the United States, building relationships along the way.
“This partnership has allowed the exchange of great practices between Panama, Missouri and our countries,” said Army Maj. Gen. Levon Cumpton, Missouri’s adjutant general.
Cumpton cited the personal relationships he’s developed with Panamanian officials since becoming the state’s senior officer in 2019. Similar close ties extend through the ranks, he said.
“Many people in the state of Missouri have gotten to know Panamanians, and Panamanians have gotten to know Missourians,” Cumpton said. “There have been a number of opportunities for us to exchange information and best practices that improves security and stability in the region, the U.S. and across the world.”
Recent exchanges have focused on a wide range of competencies, including crisis and civil disturbance response preparedness, NCO development, strategic leadership and planning, and aircraft maintenance.
“One of the great recent examples is we have a lot of helicopters in the United States, and Panama is very good at fixing corrosion on an aircraft,” Hokanson said. “Our maintainers were able to come here and learn from the Panamanian aircraft mechanics how to better manage corrosion, so our aircraft are safe.”
In 2022, the Missouri National Guard sent military police subject matter experts to exchange best practices on securing a crime scene and collecting evidence and DNA with their Panamanian counterparts.
This August, members of Panama’s public security forces traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to train with Missouri Guardsmen and other federal, state and local partners in an all-hazard and homeland defense exercise to foster disaster response cohesion.
Hokanson said these training events benefit all, as members from both sides learn from one another to improve tactics, techniques and procedures to protect citizens better.
Panama and the Missouri Guard have held about 40 engagements over the past six years. Future engagements will feature cyber-related exchanges as Panama continues to explore ways to strengthen the canal’s cyber infrastructure.
“We are a small country but with a geographical location that is the treasure of the world,” Pino said, referring to the Panama Canal. “Training with you is our best investment to help face the challenges of the future.”
Hokanson toured the canal’s Miraflores locks, where thousands of ships carrying millions of tons of cargo transit each year.
“That is a big responsibility for a small nation with a small population,” he said. “Thank you for all the work that you do.”