Security Heightens as Panama Base Shuts Down
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
HOWARD AIR FORCE BASE, Canal Zone, July 29, 1999 With machetes, they hack their way through the dense jungle until they near the smooth green grass and can see the homes. They look for the ones where somebody lives but isn't home. TVs, VCRs and stereos can fetch good money and don't take long to find.
They come here often, dodging round-the-clock Air Force security patrols and moving cautiously along a spider web of trails. The patrols can't catch everyone. There are just too many willing to take a chance.
"Since January, we've had 152 apprehensions for all offenses, and 117 of those were for trespassing," said Capt. James Damato, chief of security forces. Damato's forces number 130, about one- fifth of the total number of airmen who remain here. The United States will turn over control of Howard to Panama on Nov. 1. The security forces have to make sure the base remains secure and safe until then, a requirement of the 1977 treaty that promised Panama control of its canal by the end of this year.
Howard always has been vulnerable to trespassing -- more than four miles of its perimeter are unfenced and border the jungle. Trespassers are so eager to score a hit, it's been said they'll spend days cutting a trail for a single raid. To counter their efforts, Damato employs the Air Force's only mounted security patrol.
"We've got seven horses and usually send out teams of two," he said. They operate around the clock, wearing night vision goggles at night. They train for the mission here -- there's no school for Air Force horse patrols, although some Dallas police officers came down a couple of years ago and taught tactics.
Sounds like a job many police officers might sign up for, and they do. "But after eight hours on a saddle in the jungle, where it's raining and hot, the glamor fades quickly," Damato said.
The horses and riders are as attached to each other as family. One of the horses was born and raised on post. But the steeds will be gone soon.
"We were going to send them back to the United States, but it turns out they have a parasite and won't be allowed in," he said. "Now, we're trying to find them a home in Panama. We don't want them to end up in a glue factory."
Dogs used on security details will return soon to the states with their handlers or for reassignment to new handlers. The working dog of choice here has been the Belgian malanois, Damato said. The dogs may look just like darker-colored German shepherds, he said, but they're easier to train and alert quickly to interlopers.
Then there are the sensors. Howard is one of only three DoD sites equipped with the Tactical Automated Security System. The others are in Korea and Southwest Asia. Arrayed in layers, the system includes multiple detection modes -- motion sensors and trip wires, for example. "If one goes off, it may be an animal," Damato said. "But if several sensors in a line go off, we know we probably have an intruder."
But at the heart of security are the police officers. Mostly they go out on foot patrols, in all weather, day and night. Marines from Joint Task Force Panama, charged with guarding the canal itself, are available to augment the airmen if necessary.
Now working eight-hour shifts, the Air Force security forces will go to 12-hour shifts in October when there are fewer of them available to do the job. By then they'll have only a handful of buildings to protect and fewer people. The horses will go, then most of the dogs and a lot of the ammunition.
"When the last 12 to 15 people are still here, security forces will represent the bulk of them," Damato said. "We'll be here when the lights go out Nov. 1."