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Guarding the Big Ditch

In the late 1990s, when the Panama Canal was still under American control, a pilot entrusted to guide a cargo ship through the channel was besieged by fears besides the typical ones sparked by the narrow locks, tricky currents, treacherous shallows, and twists and turns. In the hold of the ship sat 800 tons of explosives, and the pilot was dubious about the security used to protect the vessel.

“We needed 24-hour lookouts to avoid someone approaching the boats, and they [the canal authority] didn’t have that,” recalled the pilot, who preferred not to be named. He shared this reminiscence as I recently rode with him in a large bulk carrier through the channel. He worried that terrorists could pass themselves off as one of the crew, hijack the ship, and use it as a “Trojan horse” that could explode and devastate vital installations.

That fear has long been a threat considered by the canal’s protectors. It takes its place alongside natural disasters, maritime accidents, dam bursts, worker strikes, and a host of other incidents that could interrupt the flow of global maritime traffic on the crucial waterway, which has been briefly closed only a few times since 1914. The Panama Canal Authority (known as ACP, which is the acronym for its name in Spanish) takes all of these omnipresent risks into account in its operations. It has come a long way since the early 1990s when the nervous pilot maneuvered his explosives-laden craft through the locks.

“Security has gotten much better,” the pilot—a 12-year veteran—notes. Today, round-the-clock guards watch ships in the canal area. And as a plan to expand the canal moves from the drawing board to a national referendum, there are also plans for the security net to be strengthened.

“Is the risk factor always there? Yes,” says Jaime Owens, CPP, security branch manager on the Atlantic end. But “we put in the best controls we can to guard against it.”

The Great Enterprise

France originally tried to cut a waterway across the tropical S-shaped isthmus of Panama in the late 1880s, spending nearly $300 million in an effort spearheaded by Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal. The attempt ended in disaster due to myriad factors: rampant malaria and yellow fever; the French determination to construct a sea level canal rather than one featuring locks; a financial scandal; and immature technology.

By the early 1900s, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt had taken on the canal project as the cornerstone of his administration, declaring he was “going to make the dirt fly!” From 1904 to 1914, the American effort engaged workers of markedly diverse nationalities to create one of history’s great engineering marvels, a 52-mile slice of water that buoys ships through three sets of locks to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The monetary cost of the “Big Ditch” for the United States was about $352 million; the price of life between the French and American digs was estimated as high as 25,000 people, or 500 lives for every mile of the canal.

Among the immediate concerns surrounding the audacious project was its security. The locks were built at an offset angle from the oceans, so no clear shot could be taken at them from a ship at sea. During the Second World War, machine gun towers sprouted around the installations, and nets to block torpedoes were strung across the entrances to the locks. Antisubmarine nets were also hung in the lock chambers, preventing vessels from laying or dropping a bomb overboard.

“The canal has always been protecting itself against attack,” says Charles Morris Brooks, former head of security at the canal and author of the book Guarding the Crossroads: Security and Defense of the Panama Canal.

By the late 1970s, however, after U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty relinquishing American control of the canal by the year 2000, physical security of the waterway was rudimentary, relying on chain-link fences, gooseneck lights, and brass padlocks. U.S. Army bases and canal zone police did the rest. To reverse that decline, a new security plan was devised, and state-of- the-art technology began arriving. From 1984 to the present, experts estimate that at least $20 million has been spent on securing the waterway.

Debility Points

Gatún Dam, a concave wall along the manmade lake of the same name, is at the heart of the canal route. The lake is the lifeblood of the canal, supplying the locks with the millions of gallons of water needed to lift and lower the ships up and down the steps. A natural recreation site, it is open to fishermen and boaters, but they need special navigation permits issued by the Panama Canal Authority. ACP patrol boats monitor the area, which is difficult to control given the plethora of access points around the lake. Security experts are concerned that Gatún Dam and the Madden Dam to the east are potential weak points that terrorists might attack.

“If you damage one of the dams, and the water drains from the lake, you could disrupt operations for a long time, because it would take the lake a long while to fill back up,” says a security expert who worked at the canal for the U.S. Southern Command in the 1990s. Nevertheless, he thinks that such a scenario is unlikely.

Other international security experts agree that a terrorist attack on the canal is not a high probability. Panama has no particular enemies who want to do it harm, and no terrorist groups reside in the country. The canal is a waterway for global shipping traffic, not an asset of the United States, and thus, probably not seen as a retaliatory target. Still, the ACP prefers not to take any chances.

“The canal continues being a strategic route for maritime navigation,” says Juan Hector Diaz, director of the ACP’s safety, security, and environmental department. Nowadays, more than 3 percent of world trade passes through it each year. “This is something that terrorist groups look at: the impact at a world level that a target can have in order to get the international community’s attention.”

Eyes on the Canal

At night, the steamy banks of the Big Ditch are lit by endless rows of lights, reflecting off the water and clarifying the channel like an airport runway. Ships started running the canal around the clock in the mid-1960s, when traffic increased dramatically to at least one transit per hour, 24 hours a day, seven days per week, 365 days per year.

They do not pass unseen. There are more than 400 cameras along the channel, perched atop buildings, on poles, behind barbed wire fences, around the Gatún Dam, and in many other places the ACP will not divulge. They are state-of-the-art digital machines that can revert to analog if necessary. Their images are watched from the ACP’s security control center near the Miraflores locks. Some cameras can also be watched by the public on the Internet via Webcasts.

“We have scores of cameras, alarms, access controls, surveillance of the surrounding land, surveillance of vehicles, and people,” says Diaz.

Security officers patrol the area both on foot and in a fleet of small, speedy black-and-white launches. They supplement the camera surveillance, watching tourists and cruising the channel for any signs of suspicious activity.

The canal also enlists the help of the nonsecurity staff. “More important than all of these instruments is the constant information we get from canal employees,” continues Diaz. “We have 9,000 people distributed the length of the canal, in tugboats, support craft, controlling the aquatic vegetation, cleaning the navigation signs, [and] they are all on alert for anomalies.”

Adding to the numbers, the ACP works in concert with a slew of local entities, including the national police, the national maritime service, the national air service, and the national security board. The priorities for all are to secure the locks, dams, power generation stations, communications systems, marine traffic control center, administration buildings, and industrial and support facilities.

Other security precautions continue to be taken as they are deemed necessary. A boat launch called the old Ski Docks, which is located on the west wing of the Gatún Dam, was shut down after being deemed a security risk because of its location and public use of the facility. The canal authority is also in litigation to close down the Pedro Miguel Boat Club on the southeast side of the locks bearing the same name. Any boats that currently leave the marina are not allowed back. Not many boats are left there.

Before Entering

Each ship that goes through the canal pays a fixed $400 security fee—an amount that may seem high in the abstract, but it is only a fraction of the total cost of using the canal; boats such as the Queen Elizabeth II have paid more than $42,000 for a transit.

But before boats even get into the canal area, they have to follow certain security procedures. One recent measure taken by the ACP was to embrace the International Maritime Organization’s International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) code, giving canal authorities access to more information about ships and their cargo.

Vessels wanting to transit the channel must get in touch with the ACP 96 hours before arrival in canal waters and transmit requested data. The electronic exchange is done by the Automated Data Collection System (ADCS).

“This system allows us to electronically receive information on cargo, the crew, passengers, destination, the next port, the previous [10] ports of call, the flag [of the country that the ship is sailing under], the level of risk of the boat, and who the ship security officer is,” says Antonio Michel, CPP, manager of the canal’s protection division.

Michel notes that boats are turned away if they raise concerns. Recently, for example, a vessel carrying a nuclear reactor was denied passage.

Tracking System

The newest high-tech addition to the security scheme is a tailor-made tracking system designed to protect boats while they are at anchor within the canal area. Dreamt up by Fermín Caballero, CPP, a resident specialist in canal installation security, the Small Target Detection System relies on different sensors, including Global Positioning System (GPS) data and radar, to establish protection perimeters around boats. The tracking information appears on two separate screens in the main control room.

When a vessel emitting a foreign signal gets near a craft, it is labeled an intruder by the system until proven otherwise. If the vessel is not completely identified, “it trips an alarm, cameras automatically home in on the intruder, and then there are dispatches to the site and other alarm activities,” says Caballero.

Sturdy But Not Invincible

The amount of protection afforded each craft depends mostly on its cargo: A bulk grain carrier is going to require less attention than a fuel tanker. The Eugenia B is one such bulk carrier, carrying cereal from Louisiana to Japan. Under a hot sun at high noon, the massive ship steams up to the Gatún locks, which loom out of the water like steps fronting a city hall.

The Eugenia B is a Panamax, or of the maximum dimensions that can squeeze through the Panama Canal locks. The boat is 180 meters long and 32.2 meters wide—a beam that just edges into the lock chambers.

The canal pilot at the helm is nonchalantly chatting about restaurants in Argentina as the enormous vessel closes in on the long, finger-like concrete approach that shoots out from the first lock. “Hard starboard!” he suddenly barks. Tugboats furiously push against the vessel from the left side, kicking up foam that churns toward the jungle-infested bank, where an alligator basks.

Tugs alongside and behind fight the currents that are trying to kick the boat to the left. “Slow ahead!” the pilot shouts. Whistles blow, bells clang, and on the right the approach begins to slip by. “Half ahead!” says the pilot. Small Mitsubishi locomotives to the starboard side begin to track the boat, and cables from them are thrown out and attached to the Eugenia B. “Full ahead!” cries the pilot.

The locomotives push ahead with 290 horsepower traction units to help guide the ship through the locks. “Midships!” says the pilot. Up ahead, a towering car carrier called the Global Highway is moving into the succeeding lock, making room for the Eugenia B’s entrance into the initial chamber.

Enormous mitre gates ease open, and the boat slips inside with only two feet to spare on either side of the high concrete walls. The gates swing shut behind, and the water elevator begins to lift. It will take 55 million gallons of fresh water to ultimately get the Eugenia B through the canal’s locks during a 12-hour transit—one of at least 34 boats that will make the journey that day.

The process is all the more impressive when the age of the infrastructure is considered. The gates themselves are, amazingly, still the originals. The canal was built with such precision and durability that it still relies on much of its 92-year-old installations. The giant electromechanical bull wheels that began opening and closing the mitre gates in 1914 were not replaced with hydraulics until the late 1990s.

The age of the canal is not considered a weakness. Undergirding every chamber are concrete floors 13 to 20 feet thick. Even if a terrorist succeeded in getting a Trojan horse boat in and detonated a bomb, the damage would likely not be devastating.

“The canal is not made of paper maché,” says the security expert who worked at Southern Command. “When you look at critical infrastructure of the canal, like the locks, they make a pretty hard target. It would take a pretty big bang to blow them up.”

Proof of their sturdiness came in 1989, when the United States invaded Panama during Operation Just Cause. Armed personnel carriers were driven onto land using ramps extended from ships to the tops of the locks, because the dock at Rodman Naval Station could not handle their weight of more than 30 tons.

The fear of a Trojan horse ship nonetheless persists. “It’s an Achilles heel within the canal itself,” says Morris Brooks. “Last year, almost seven million containers went through the canal. You can’t stop ships, inspect them, and hold them up unless you are very sure.”

He maintains that security is too scant in key areas, such as along the Bridge of the Americas and the spidery Centenario Bridge—both of which span the canal—and along the road network that passes by the Pedro Miguel locks.

Combine a suicide bomber and a liquid petroleum gas carrier, “and you’ve got the atomic bomb there,” says Brooks. Vehicles traveling into the tourist area at Miraflores locks should be searched and are not, he says. Planes also fly over the canal. “Suppose one is a plane loaded with explosives looking for hazardous cargo in the canal?” he queries.

Panamanians Praised

While critics do find some gaps in the canal’s defenses, Panama’s management of the canal generally gets high marks. In 1999, international doubt was rife over whether Panama could effectively and efficiently administer the canal and secure its operations. Brooks, in unanimous agreement with several analysts and security experts who were consulted for this story, lauds the Panamanians for their performance thus far.

“They’ve taken on the challenge of making a good show…the canal protection division does a good job protecting the canal and its infrastructure,” Brooks comments. “It’s a very modern security force, and they have all the state-of-the-art hardware.”

The ACP’s solid track record is partly credited to thorough training during the 20-year transition period between the treaty under Carter and the actual handover. But American and Panamanian authorities agree there is another reason things have gone off without a hitch: the ACP’s separation from the government. Diaz estimates the canal makes up, directly and indirectly, about 30 percent of Panama’s gross domestic product, but its funds are not commingled with those of the state. The Panamanian government appoints a board of directors within the canal authority, but it does not get involved in the day-to-day operations.

There is a further level of separation between the canal authority and the rest of the country, but it is implied rather than spoken. One gets the feeling that ACP workers see themselves as an A-team among the nation’s employees, rising above the corruption and bureaucracy that some say stigmatize the Panamanian government.

“The Panama Canal work force has an instilled ethos that it [the canal] is a national asset that must be taken seriously,” says the expert who worked with Southern Command. In that vein, there is no worry about worker stoppages stymieing operations, since a no-strike policy is part of the contracts.

Best of both worlds. Contrary to logic, Panama’s efforts to protect the canal were given a boost by the exit of American firepower six years ago. The ACP can be more nimble in making changes to the waterway’s security scheme than the Americans could. “They have the flexibility to change things that previously went through the U.S. Congress,” says Brooks.

The United States continues to have a hand in the canal’s security, however. It is one of 16 nations working with the ACP on joint armed forces exercises to guard against threats. In addition, the United States has the right, per the treaty, to step in and protect the canal should the need arise.

The U.S. influence on the canal remains unmistakable. In 2005, 68 percent of canal traffic originated or ended in the United States, and the waterway handled 11 percent of total U.S.-borne trade. But the canal’s importance within U.S. foreign policy appears to have diminished. “Once upon a time, U.S. security in Latin America was defined by the Panama Canal…. But it’s not as strategically important as it used to be,” says the Southern Command security expert.

Safety and Response

Terrorism, as noted, is not a high probability. Other risks may be more likely. An obvious one in so narrow a channel is that of maritime accidents and foundered boats blocking the route. Emphasis is placed on accident prevention and emergency response for that reason.

To start with, more than 200 well-paid canal pilots are specially trained to serve as the only personnel authorized to guide boats through the channel. “I once went on a Navy ship transit through the canal, and I was amazed that the PanCanal pilot was giving a command about every 15 seconds,” said the Southern Command expert. “It’s a fairly complex operation. I could see where they earn their money.”

When boats do collide, task forces are ready. A few years ago, a bulk steel carrier and an LPG tanker crashed near the Gaillard Cut—the part of the canal that crosses the Continental Divide—leaving a gaping hole in the steel carrier. The steel runner was promptly and purposely grounded on a bank, where a scuba team repaired the underside and sent it on its way.

Other threats to the canal’s operation have either subsided over the years or are out of the hands of the ACP. Mudslides, a longtime hazard for the builders of the canal, have been overcome by constant terracing of the banks leading down to the channel. The technique is particularly evident in the Gaillard Cut on the approach to the Centenario bridge.

Among other natural disasters, floods are not considered a particularly grave threat. “They’ve got all the controls necessary,” notes Brooks. But earthquakes do arouse anxiety. “I think in the pecking order, earthquakes are probably the biggest risk threatening the canal,” he says.

In September 1882, an earthquake shook the isthmus in two waves. The origin of the quake was in northwestern South America, about 300 miles southeast of the canal area. The Panama Railroad that strings along the channel was hit, with mangled rails, damage to abutments and bridges, and roadbed sunk 10 feet in places. In the cities at either end of the canal—Panama and Colon—buildings were destroyed, and fissures ran down streets. Since then, shocks on a lesser scale have been felt. A number of earthquake centers lie not far from the canal area.

Expansion Plans

Natural disasters are one of many considerations the ACP has to grapple with as it ponders how to expand the canal to keep its business booming. The original expansion plans date back to 1940, when the U.S. Congress approved a $277 million, six-year project to build a third set of locks.

The project was impelled by the fear that wartime sabotage or aerial attack could put the existing lock system out of operation. The work was hastened by plans for construction of new “Montanaclass” super-battleships that could not squeeze through the existing chambers.

But American officers in charge of guarding the canal during the war complained that the expansion project complicated local defense, and when the Navy indefinitely postponed the superbattleship program, work on the new locks was deferred as well.

Economic considerations, rather than security, are driving the renewed effort to expand the canal. Worldwide, Panamax ships are being trumped by Post-Panamax vessels, which are too large to fit through the nearly century-old locks. In less than 10 years, statistics show the canal will reach full capacity and start to lose clients.

In April the Panamanian government announced the $5.25 billion plan to double the canal’s capacity. Economy Minister and ACP chairman Alberto Aleman Zubieta said at that time that if work starts in 2007, it could be completed by about 2014. Aleman Zubieta said that the expansion would be paid via canal tolls and a bridging loan during the peak of the endeavor.

More than 100 studies on everything from environmental to engineering and financing issues have been done regarding the plan, which involves constructing a new set of locks that would create a third lane of traffic capable of moving larger boats. The blueprint has been approved by Panama’s National Assembly, which then mandated a national referendum. The public was scheduled to vote on the proposal on October 22nd of this year after this article had gone to press.

If the expansion is approved, security will grow in step with it. Security requirements would be implemented from the initial stages of the work.

“Security will not start at the beginning of construction,” says Diaz. “We will take all measures to ensure that all workers have gone through information-processing to make sure they are the ones who should be there, and to ensure troublemakers are not around.”

Robert Elliott is an assistant editor at Security Management.