14, Number 9
Published rumors and a few hard facts give pause for thoughtTerrorist angles suggested in Cecilio Padrón abduction
by Eric Jackson
When 66-year-old Cuban-American businessman Cecilio Padrón first went missing near his Costa del Este home on April 4, the news reports and reasonable inferences from them were that it was just another example of the growing kidnap for ransom problem that we have here.
That three National Police officers were caught on a video camera participating in the crime and arrested, and then (according to allegations traceable back to Panamanian law enforcement sources) confessed that they had been paid by a Colombian to do so, was only slightly surprising.
Colombian criminals operating in Panama? A lot of people here, and not just those who would like to blame all of our social ills on foreigners, will say that Colombian gangsters are one of Panama's principal problems. Certainly the Colombian kidnapper grabbing someone in this country, either for ransom or to apply pressure in some sort of business dispute, is not a new phenomenon.
Cops as gangsters in uniform? This may be newsworthy and outside the norm, but it's also something that's hardly new to this country.
We then saw reports in several Panamanian media, alleging law enforcement sources in this country, about how Padrón's family had been contacted and given some assurances that he was alive, but that there had been none of the usual ransom demands. But of course, wealthy families with a member held for ransom usually won't talk about payoffs that are demanded or delivered so at least part of that story would naturally be taken with a grain of salt by someone who follows those sorts of crime stories in this country.
But then, toward the end of April, the ABC news network in the United States reported that Colombia's left-wing FARC guerrillas had come into Panama and snatched Padrón. Another version suggested that he may have been grabbed by ordinary criminals, but then delivered to FARC. The ABC report cited US government sources, but came out of Colombia. The American Embassy here is avoiding all commentary, even as to Padrón's citizenship, because it's a sensitive ongoing investigation with somebody's life at stake.
The FARC angle was picked up by the Partido Popular - aligned La Estrella and turned into unambiguous headline stuff. FARC has Padrón, according to that daily, whose publisher Ebrahim Asvat also happens to be a former chief of the National Police.
La Estrella's version appeared on May 1, and elicited a common reaction from leftist leaders at the Mayday parade. Actually, it was an identical response from both SUNTRACS secretary general Genaro López and Partido Alternativa Popular leader Olmedo Beluche. When asked about whether the allegations that it was a FARC job and the arrests of the three police officers combine to suggest that the National Police are infiltrated by FARC, both laughed and said "That's a good question."
The CANF connection
Coming on the heels of the ABC story, AP and several other American news organizations revealed that Padrón is not only a businessman who might be an attractive target for those who would extort money from his family, but also a member of the board of directors of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the Miami-based umbrella organization of the anti-Castro activists in the Cuban exile community. The CANF acknowledged the affiliation but had little to say about the situation.
That added a second terrorism angle to the story. According to the Cuban government, many other observers and inferences that can reasonably be drawn from the various admissions of a number of anti-Castro activists, the CANF is a US state-sponsored terrorist organization. Luis Posada Carriles, who led a group that planned to set off a powerful bomb at the University of Panama that would have killed Fidel Castro and hundreds of other people, told The New York Times in 1998 that the late CANF leader Jorge Mas Canosa had provided him with the funds used to wage a bombing campaign against Cuban hotels that killed one young Italian tourist and injured a number of other people. Years earlier in Caracas, Posada Carriles had placed a bomb aboard a Cubana civilian airliner that detonated over the Caribbean Sea near Barbados, killing all 73 people on board. Posada Carriles, now allowed to live as a free man in the United States, is an escapee from a Venezuelan prison and was handed a 30-year sentence there for the airliner bombing.
One of Cuba's major political causes of the moment is a demand to free the Cuban Five: Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González, who are serving long prison terms in the United States. These men were sent by the Cuban government to Miami as spies to infiltrate the CANF and several of its component or allied organizations, and the argument is that they were not committing espionage against the United States but rather engaged in an undercover anti-terrorist law enforcement operation.
The right-wing Cuban exile movement has not only attacked Cuba and its government. In 1972 at the behest of Richard Nixon, several of its members broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington DC's Watergate Hotel, setting off the biggest political scandal in US history. Its members have set off bombs in various US cities, attacking American leftist groups, US airlines and critics within the Cuban-American community. In a car bombing on the streets of Washington, a Cuban exile terrorist cell killed former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and US citizen Ronnie Moffitt. In virtually every Latin American country that has had right-wing death squads, the Miami Cuban exile movement has lent political support, money, personnel or more usually a combination of these to such movements.
The CANF has offices in Miami, Washington, and New Jersey and chapters in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, several cities in Florida, Puerto Rico, New Orleans, and Texas. It has received direct US government funding through the National Endowment for Democracy and indirect support through Radio and TV Marti, American government stations that are essentially staffed by CANF members. Its political activities in Panama are led --- at least in the face they present to the public --- by former Panama City Mayor Mayín Correa.
The Cuban Embassy in Panama was unavailable for comment about Padrón's CANF ties. Prensa Latina, the Cuban government controlled news agency, has maintained a complete silence about the abduction and all related news and allegations.
FARC and Panama
The Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) is a left-wing guerrilla force that began its formal existence in 1964 but has roots that go back to Colombia's civil wars of the late 1940s. Its top leader, Manuel "Tirofijo" Marulanda, first took up arms as a teenaged guerrilla in 1947. By many estimates it fields an army of some 17,000 to 18,000 combatants, but the Colombian government claims that its troop strength is less than half of that. The group operates in sparsely populated parts of Colombia and has been known to take refuge in all of the countries that have borders with Colombia.
FARC has a shadowy international political, financial and smuggling infrastructure that has a presence in most Latin American countries as well as in North America and Europe. Cuba and Venezuela, while maintaining official relations with the government in Bogota, unofficially recognize FARC as a belligerent party in a civil war and maintain communication channels with them.
FARC is very wealthy as far as rebel armies go, deriving large parts of its income from taxing (and, according to the US government, directly participating in) the production of and trafficking in illegal drugs and from a widespread kidnapping for ransom racket. It's listed as a terrorist organization by the US and Canadian governments and by the European Union, and some of its members have been jailed in the United States on drug trafficking charges.
FARC kidnaps and holds some of its hostages for political rather than financial purposes. A number of those whom it holds for ransom were kidnapped by ordinary criminals and then sold to FARC.
In February of 2003 in Colombia FARC captured three American mercenaries --- or "State Department anti-drug contractors" if one cares to use the Washington euphemism. The three men, Mark Goncalvez, Kein Stambler and Thomas Howes, remain in captivity with the price for their release set not in cash but in prisoner swaps or political concessions that don't appear very likely anytime soon.
In Panama, FARC had a long history of using parts of the Darien and Kuna Yala adjacent to Colombia as refuges, resting places and somewhere to shop for groceries. Since the mid-1990s attacks on Panama by the Colombian government-supported AUC paramilitary and increased border patrols by the Panamanian National Police have reduced FARC's presence in the eastern region of this country. It has often been alleged, however, that the group launders money here and over the years many of the illegal arms shipments that have been seized by Panamanian authorities were bound for FARC.
In 1993 FARC invaded the Kuna village of Pucuro in the Darien near the Colombian border and abducted Dave Mankins, Rick Tenenoff, and Mark Rich, Americans working as missionaries for the New Tribes Mission. After unsuccessful attempts to extort ransom out of the fundamentalist Christian organization, FARC reportedly executed the three men in 1996. According to one version from a US diplomatic source, the missionaries' work of translating the Bible into Kuna and preaching the Gospel to people who embraced traditional indigenous beliefs offended some local Kuna leaders, who told FARC that Mankins, Tenenoff and Rich were US government spies and thus set up their abduction.
The traditional Panamanian policy has been to remain neutral in Colombia's civil conflicts, maintaining official relations with the government in Bogota and de facto if denied back-channel communications with anti-government rebel groups.
During the Moscoso administration the government here openly supported Plan Colombia and rather flagrantly backed the AUC paramilitary's activities in Panama without ever admitting this. Moscoso also pardoned Posada Carriles and his accomplices on her way out of office.
The Torrijos administration has quietly backed away from its predecessor's policies in the direction of more traditional neutrality. It still allows Plan Colombia support activities to be carried out from Panama and is said by the US government to be cooperating with its War on Terror policies.
This past February 22 Panamanian police seized six Colombians after a shootout at sea off the Darien town of Jaque, and identified the five men and a woman as members of FARC. They are being held in jail here for assault and a number of other charges and there has been a fair amount of speculation --- including in an alleged FARC communiqué that the Torrijos administration brands a forgery --- that the holding of FARC prisoners would make Panama a target for various reprisals or armed attempts to gain leverage aimed at freeing them.
So what if?
Hard information has been hard to come by in this case. To the extent that the allegations about the FARC tie come from the Uribe administration in Colombia or the Bush administration in the United States, those must be treated with caution because both have political motives to exaggerate the threat posed by FARC and both have been caught in repeated lies about the subject of terrorism. However, there would also be reasons why FARC might take the unusual step of kidnapping somebody in Panama City, or purchasing a hostage taken by ordinary criminals when it knows the abducted person to be a director of the Cuban American National Foundation.
The CANF is an important force in the Republican politics of the important state of Florida, and that would add to the US government's normal interest in the case of any other American held by FARC. But after the controversial Colombian - US operation that killed FARC's principal hostage negotiator Raúl Reyes, where might the Americans go to seek Padrón's release?
They might go to the government of Panama, which has something that FARC wants. Although the United States is officially not on speaking terms with Cuba, they might go to Raúl Castro, who can talk to FARC, through Martín Torrijos, whose administration has relatively friendly ties with its counterpart in Cuba.
Thus one might wonder whether the subject of Cecilio Padrón came up during the Panamanian president's recent state visit to Havana.
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2008 by Eric Jackson
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