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Seventh Presidential Summit of the Americas: The security challenge of a lifetime

By Omar Pinzón and Kenny Orocu

When the Sixth Summit of the Americas concluded in April 2012, the Colombian president announced that the Seventh Summit of the Americas was to be held in Panama three years later. The theme, “Prosperity with Equity: The Challenge of Cooperation in the Americas,” was apropos since security is one of the biggest challenges whenever heads of states gather, requiring the cooperation of hundreds if not thousands of people. This event was to be no exception.

Security is also one of the greatest long-standing concerns of the citizens of Latin America; the drug trade and extortion drive a high percentage of the violent crime in the region. Not only was security on the Summit agenda as a key topic but, like the Sixth Summit, a gathering of the most powerful leaders of the Western Hemisphere would call for maximum protection and flawless execution of all provisions. Although there were a few years to prepare, providing security for such an event is a huge task.

Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and other countries surrounding Panama experience very high gun violence and gun homicide rates – among the highest in the world. Panama is in the midst of this globally unparalleled “danger zone.” Given that, combined with the weighty nature of the event itself, even the most experienced law enforcement professionals would cringe at bearing the responsibility for the security of the world’s most powerful leaders. That’s where dignitary protection and critical infrastructure security come together in the most challenging of circumstances.

In order to secure the event, Director General Omar Pinzón of the National Police of Panama assigned one of his highly experienced confidants, Commissioner Nestor Valdez to devise a multi-faceted, comprehensive physical security plan that included, among other things, a state-of-the-art threat detection capability along with a video system manned by highly trained personnel. U.S.-made ShotSpotter gunshot detection and location technology was put in place around the Atlapa Convention Center in Panama City to help protect the 33 Heads of State and governmental delegations from across the Americas as well as all the Summit attendees – estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 – in the event of an active shooter scenario. 

The Atlapa Convention Center is a huge, majestic complex occupying 18 acres, with a theater/ auditorium equipped with 2.800 comfortable armchairs in a 35,000 square foot building complete with large meeting and break out rooms and numerous dining areas. Atlapa is located in the heart of Panama City and just minutes from the International Banking Center and the Tocumen International Airport, which serves the largest airlines in the world and is the hub for COPA, the national airline of Panama.

When the Seventh Summit of the Americas opened on April 10, 2015, the comprehensive physical security plan and all related systems were up and running, standing guard around Atlapa  in case of a security incident.  The Panama National Police, under the leadership of Director Pinzón, had rapidly deployed a mobile version of the gunshot detection system in and around the Convention Center to deter gun violence during the Summit. A cutting edge video monitoring system was installed to support the event, and round the clock physical surveillance by various organizations within the National Police, along with the presence of the U.S. military for months prior to the event, provided the most comprehensive security use case available. In the unlikely event a shooter would have targeted any dignitary, anywhere within the “dome of protection” around the Summit, law enforcement personnel monitoring the system would have been able to quickly respond with situational awareness, such as the precise location of the shooter(s), exact time of the shooting and number of shooters.

The gunshot detection and location technology was installed at strategic locations around the Atlapa perimeter. In the months before the Summit, an array was carefully configured to provide optimal coverage, nine sensor “stations” were established at strategic locations, generally about 30 feet above the ground on rooftops of buildings next to and within the Summit location. This stand-alone mobile system using solar panels and cellular modems was put in place to generate real time alerts in the event of an active shooter scenario, and was designed to augment the ~6000 police officers that were stationed at Atlapa 24 x 7 during the Summit.

To help protect the Atlapa Convention Center, Director Pinzón assigned Capt. Kenny Orocu of the Telematica Division of the National Police of Panama who worked with his technical team to design, configure and install an array of solar powered sensors that would effectively safeguard this very large space.  

“We’re thankful that the system didn’t have to do its job but know that if something had happened, we would have been ready,said Captain Kenny Orocu, Telemática, National Police of Panamá.

Here in Panama, the Policia Nacional have been using gunshot detection technology for three years now in what is clearly one of the roughest neighborhoods, San Miguelito. With more than 650,000 inhabitants, San Miguelito is affected by waves of criminal activity, like any large city. In the month before the Summit, ShotSpotter saved a life in Panama. An 8-shot incident occurred in a particularly difficult area called Veranillo. Following an alert from SST’s center in Newark California, the police were dispatched and found a multiple gunshot victim at the scene. The victim was found by officers who arrived on the scene, and rushed to the hospital. Local police remain committed to using all the assistance they can get to fight crime. Fortunately, the Seventh Presidential Summit of the Americas came and went without any gunfire incidents.

“Our dedicated personnel stood guard while the leaders of the Hemisphere came together here in Panama. Knowing that local personnel had worked with us here and SST acoustics experts in California were standing by during the event 24/7 to review and classify any alerts that may have happened, we feel that we would have been as well prepared as humanly possible for a gunfire incident. Preparedness is the name of the game in security, and we always hope that those measures will not be put to the test. Our advance efforts invested in planning and execution were well worth it,” stated Director General Omar Pinzón.

Follow on note: The urban solution used was SST’s ShotSpotter Flex. The technology used by the National Police at Atlapa Convention Center in Panama is now available in an SST product called ShotSpotter SiteSecure™ to secure other event structures with indoor and outdoor gunfire detection.

Omar Pinzón is Director of the National Police of Panama. Kenny Orocu is Captain, National Police of Panama.



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