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131st members help share drug prevention message with Panamanian counterparts

Master Sgt. Curtis Hanock, 131st Logistics Readiness Squadron and Counterdrug Task Force member, speaks to the children at St. Joan of Arc School about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.  Members of the Panamanian National Police and the Frontier Force visited the Missouri National Guard CDTF to learn new techniques to present to at-risk children in Panama. (Photo by Bill Phelan)

Master Sgt. Curtis Hanock, 131st Logistics Readiness Squadron and Counterdrug Task Force member, speaks to the children at St. Joan of Arc School about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Members of the Panamanian National Police and the Frontier Force visited the Missouri National Guard CDTF to learn new techniques to present to at-risk children in Panama. (Photo by Bill Phelan)

ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- Thousands of children in Panama may benefit from drug and alcohol awareness programs taught by the Missouri National Guard Counterdrug (CD) Program after a visit by Panamanian officials.

Members of the Panamanian National Police and the Frontier Force, border security agency, visited St. Louis Mar. 22-26, sharing drug-prevention ideas with the Guard's CD Task Force.

The visit was organized by Capt. Juan Carlos Valencia, Mo. National Guard officer assigned to the Office of Defense Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Panama. Valencia and Staff Sgt. Herastico Pitty-Diaz, 131st Bomb Wing Security Forces Squadron, served as interpreters during the visit.

A primary goal of the event was to expose the Panamanians to the Guard's in-school program on drug, alcohol and tobacco awareness, which focuses on helping school-aged children to make healthy life decisions. Program coordinators provided information on the dangers of smoking and abusing drugs and alcohol, as well as offered the students insight on how these products are marketed through the media. The program also featured a series of fun, team-building exercises designed to promote trust.

"This is an information sharing event," said Staff Sgt. Ron Johnson, CDTF instructor. "We're trying to see what challenges they are facing in Panama and to see if those challenges are similiar to what we face here in the United States."

One of those challenges, said Johnson, is that Panamanian children are becoming more involved in the manufacture and selling of illegal drugs.

"So we're hoping to build a coalition anti-drug effort in Panama similiar to what we have here, a community-based prevention program that targets [children] at an early age," added Johnson.

"Prevention is the key in both Panama and the United States," said Master Sgt. Curtis Hanock, CDTF coordinator and member of the 131st BW Logistics Readiness Squadron. "We want the Panamanians to see first-hand the drug prevention efforts that we have administered in Missouri."

With that in mind, the six-member Panamanian delegation participated in drug, alcohol and tobacco awareness presentations at Imagine Elementary School and St. Joan of Arc School in St. Louis and Delmar Harvard Elementary in University City. The group was also briefed on U.S. drug prevention efforts at the Thomas Eagleton Federal Courthouse.

Capt. Jorge Bosquez, Frontier Force officer, pointed out that Panamanian officials are often faced with a rural, indigenous population wary of any government officials.

Still, Panama has made great strides in its own drug and alcohol prevention programs.

After adopting the Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education (DARE) Program, Panama trained six DARE instructors in 2002 and offered the program to 1,600 students in six schools. The country now boasts 38 trained instructors and more than 78,000 DARE Program student graduates from 83 schools in all nine provinces.

Many Panamanian schools also have resource officers similar to those in U.S. schools and authorities are reaching out to churches in an effort to build a community-based drug and crime prevention program, which also helps ease suspicion of the government.

"That is very important," said Maj. Ayda Villareal De Jaen, Panamanian National Police, who leads Panama's drug prevention efforts. "The programs we offer in Panama are similar to those in the United States so we want to integrate those programs and offer them in Panama. We want to reach more schools with this program and teach [children] at an early age so they don't become adult offenders."

Bosquez cites Panama's rugged terrain, limited financial resources and lack of manpower as obstacles his country must still hurdle in the fight against the use and manufacture of illegal drugs, but he remains optimistic.

"I've learned some very good, positive things here that I will bring back to Panama," he said. "A lot of Panamanians are going to benefit from this - members of the native, indigenous population, who the Americans have very little experience with. A lot of what I learned here will be a good, creative way to break into that culture."

Christi Sorrell, Delmar Harvard Elementary teacher of gifted and talented students, believes the Panamanian's admiration for the Guard program is well-founded.

"The program is perfect for my students," said said. "It teaches creative problem solving and teamwork and gives them a plan for life."