Panamax 2010 arms fair trains wacky coup scenario

On guards against indigenous attacks on the Canal

The fun with the (former) military types here in Panama is that they never learn. So they have this Canal, and most experts have throughout history agreed that you can’t really defend the Canal against military or terror attacks. So these clowns here practice how to defend the Canal against attacks every year even though it’s indefensible. It’s also very difficult to attack it anyway, there isn’t much any terror group could do to close down the Panama Canal for any considerable amount of time.

This year, inspired by events in Bocas where the state lost control completely over its territory between the border with Costa Rica and Almirante, they have created a new doom scenario to practice: an indigenous uprising and subsequent coup d’etat. This would of course be a clear danger to the Canal, because everybody knows that money laundering mafiosi are to be fully trusted running the waterway and indigenous banana planters are not.

This choice of scenario tells us a couple of things:

A) The Americans – who dominate the Panamax circus – apparently see the Battle of Bocas as the Panamanian version of Wounded Knee;

B) They haven’t learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan.


The military types may think in terms of indigenous hordes storming the presidential palace and ACP headquarters with stones and machetes for a violent coup (and we admit the image has some appeal), but a successful uprising would look very differently.

Panama is home to a variety of indigenous peoples who live in different corners of the isthmus, and organizing them to storm the gates of the state in an orchestrated fashion would be a nightmare, if not completely impossible.

However, if Martinelli & Co continue their repression, what could happen is the emerging of an indigenous insurgency. To be successful, it would have to be a movement of networked tribes, horizontally and loosely organized instead of having a hierarchic structure, and its goal would be not to overthrow the government but undermine its legitimacy and leave it in a perpetual state of failure.

They wouldn’t be so dumb as to attack the Canal and invite US troops here to protect it. They would only use violence when provoked, like in Bocas, and only then would they attack vital infrastructure systempunkts, to cause disruption.

A successful indigenous movement would be organized as an open source insurgency. They wouldn’t waste their time on organizing endless marches, filing petitions, holding press conferences and picket lines. They wouldn’t play on feelings of guilt or shame which is useless in today’s environment; instead, they’d deploy the tactic of coercion (attack careers and business interests, see here and here) and isolating the government. Such affairs as the Naso people being thrown off their land because of some rogue cattle rancher would be virtually impossible if such a movement were in place because instead of useless protest marches it would be met with attacks on those business interests that caused the displacement to begin with.

So, the organizers of the Panamax 2010 exercise can practice all they want against some imaginary coup attempt by the indigenous people, but the reality is that today’s insurgencies are much smarter than that.

About the author /

Okke Ornstein is an award winning journalist, TV/Radio producer and photographer from the Netherlands and currently based in Panama. Specialized in high-impact investigative journalism, his work has led to arrests, questions in parliament and the downfall of many frauds and swindles.

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