DARIEN PROVINCE, Panama (Reuters) - Drug-running Colombian rebels are using the dense, lawless jungle joining North and South America to smuggle cocaine past sea patrols, creating a new troublespot in the continent's drug war.
Squeezed in the Caribbean and the Pacific by Panamanian and U.S. patrols that regularly seize loads of the drug, traffickers now zigzag through Panama's Darien province, which joins the isthmus nation with Colombia, Panama's government says.
Forcing local indigenous people to act as guides and mules, they haul packs of the white powder along Darien's rivers and hike through swampy, mountainous rainforest to the Panamanian end of the Pan-American highway, whose path through the Americas is broken only by the 50-mile (80-km) Darien gap.
"Our young men are forced by these drug traffickers to act as guides along the trails," said tribal leader Betanio Chiquidama, who represents Embera and Wounaan peoples living in Darien. "They say: 'You die, or you take us'," he said, adding that FARC smugglers recruit some youths with cash.
Without a standing army since a U.S. invasion overthrew dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989, Panama has little control over its porous border with Colombia. U.S. anti-drug officials say the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which has been smuggling cocaine to the United States for two decades, has turned to coastal overland routes as increased sea and air interdiction cuts off traditional routes northward.
Traffickers sometimes shuttle cocaine inland from drop-off points on the coast and store it for weeks at a time before moving it on, normally by boat from the same shoreline.
"It's a perfect place if you are going to smuggle narcotics such as the FARC is doing," said Alex Posey, an analyst at U.S. security consultancy Stratfor. "It's swampy, it's nasty, nobody really lives out there."
Just a few thousand police patrol Panama's humid, inhospitable border with Colombia. The Central American nation has long tolerated incursions by FARC rebels who cross over to stock up on supplies and escape Colombian security forces.
But, backed by the United States and increasingly worried about drug trafficking, Panamanian police are showing themselves more willing to take on the FARC in the Darien in a fight that could worsen an already precarious security situation.
Panamanian border police shot and killed three suspected FARC rebels in January. A month later, coast guardsmen fought gun battles with suspected traffickers near port towns close to the Colombian border.
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has pledged to improve security. Panama is building security bases to battle drug trafficking including one in the Darien.
As part of the new strategy, police now routinely choke FARC supply lines by limiting food shipments to the small communities that line the rivers leading to Colombia.
Panama's Congress has designated $10 million to better arm border police. "The funds requested and granted are directed to responding with armed forces at borders," said Marco Gonzalez, a lawmaker with Martinelli's Democratic Change party.
But there is little indication yet that Panama can push the FARC back into Colombia or curb the movement of cocaine, and the threat of violence that comes with it.
"We don't have the firepower to maintain a confrontation," said Severino Mejia, a security expert at the University of Panama. "The situation is going to deteriorate if the police mission is going to be dedicated to combat patrols."
Besides limiting food shipments, police have restricted travel, taking over river towns and forcing locals to stay in their villages during spates of violence.
"They are not letting us out to fish, hunt or get bananas, nothing," said Darien resident Wilbert Bailarin, 20. He said police-provided food rations did not make up for a clampdown on free movement and river trade.
Villagers say they live in constant fear that gunmen will emerge from the forest to raid food crops and other supplies and assault women. Mothers worry their sons will be lured away from traditional livelihoods to work for drug traffickers.
Border police in camouflaged uniform say they do not typically pursue FARC rebels in the Darien because they are vastly outnumbered, and many police are plain scared.
"They say (the FARC) does not leave its dead behind," said a border policeman who declined to give his name, referring to the January firefight. "They are angry."
On part of a vertical river bank, a Reuters correspondent saw the word "policia" (police) etched into hardened mud beside a skull and crossbones.
The upsurge in drug trafficking through the Darien has profoundly altered the indigenous way of life where families live in wooden houses propped on stilts to stay safe from jaguars, and men ferry bananas to market in dugout canoes.
Many men now live alone in riverside huts, having sent their wives and children to live in larger communities out of fear of rebel raids. Women have largely ceased working in community rice and banana fields, hurting production.
"There is no security in our communities even if we have police outposts," said Embera community organizer Clelia Mezua, as a group of women busily worked on woven crafts that have supplemented lost agricultural income.
"The police set up in the middle of a community. What for, if they are there to protect the community, not so that the community can protect them?"
Efforts to launch sustainable forestry projects and attract tourism are also faltering under security threats.
"We received orders to not let (visitors) stay here for security," said Nilson Berrugate, who manages a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) forestry project in the Darien, as he walked along a trail to visit a logging site. "The guerrillas use these trails. You're always afraid they'll appear."
Francois Callier, who runs the small logging company working with the WWF, spends $5,000 a month on security because of the dearth of police in the area.
"We know that in this region there are risks," he said over the buzz of chainsaws. "Anything could happen."