THE MAGAZINE

Guarding the Big Ditch

By Robert Elliott

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.”

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