Remote Panama Tribes Face Drug Wars

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SAN BLAS ISLANDS, Panama - If you want to find the major source of United States' illegal drug problem, you have to look no further than Latin America.

Colombia alone accounts for almost 80 percent of the world's cocaine supply. As traffickers become more creative in getting their product to market, the war on drugs gets tougher.

Panama a Bridge for Drug Runners

Panama is the bridge between the Colombian drug runners and their major U.S. customers. That is forcing the Colombian and Panamanian Governments to work together to stop the flow. Their front line is a remote jungle on their border. It is there that a primitive tribe of Indians is caught between the forces of good and evil. They are called the Kuna.

There are 360 islands along the Caribbean coast of Panama, that make up the homeland of the Kuna people. You might not think such an idyllic place would be the scene of fierce warfare, but that's exactly what's happening here.

I visited the island of Ustupu, near the Colombian border. It is rarely seen by tourists, with life going on as it has for centuries for the Kuna who live on this crowded island. We visited Chief Jonatan, to ask his permission to be there.

The Kuna are a gentle people who make their living from the sea. Fishermen leave at dawn in dugout canoes, diving for their catch. And that's when problems arise.

Narcos 'Expect' Locals to Run Drugs

Drug runners sometimes leave floating bundles of cocaine near the islands, making it known that they expect the product to be transported to the city. This lessens the risk the traffickers face, but makes life dangerous for the Kuna.

"Maria" is a Kuna woman.

"The traffickers come mostly in the middle of the night, and the people are often reluctant to say anything to the authorities about it because the drug runners have threatened to kill them if they do," she said.

The average income here is just over $100 per month. That makes it tempting for some of these Indians to transport the drugs to the city, where the drug runners have promised big rewards.

I took a ride to the nearby mainland with a local fisherman, to the place where these Kuna bury their dead - and sometimes hide the drugs.

They say that they have a rule in their community that they don't want any drugs on their island. So if the fishermen find drugs, they bring them up here into these rivers and hide them until such time as they can figure out what to do with them. If they do take the drugs to the narcos, they could get caught by the police and put in prison. But if they don't, the narcos get angry and come cause trouble for the people in the villages.

Christian Missionaries

Some Kuna have become addicted to cocaine in the process. But there's another group trying to influence these islanders: Christian missionaries. And where the narcos bring threats and intimidation, these evangelists bring the good news of God's love.

Keith and Wilma Forster have dedicated their lives to helping these people. For the last 37 years, they have been instrumental in translating the Bible into the Kuna language. In that time, they've seen first hand the war between good and evil.

"The unbelievers said to the believers, 'If you touch those Bibles, we will hand you over to the terrorists like we did the missionaries,'" Keith said.

Some of their fellow workers were even killed.

"They came in on a Sunday evening, took all three missionaries simultaneously, and we never saw them again," he said.

But those sacrifices haven't been in vain. The number of Kuna Christians has grown steadily through the years, and the Church on this island is reaching out to other Kuna pastors throughout the province.

Over 100 Christian leaders from other islands came to a conference, spending an entire week in intensive training, led by a team of American missionaries. The men spent hours in study and scripture memory, while their wives learned hymns and did their own training.

After nightfall, the village came together and filled the local meeting house for a time of worship by the light of a generator -- complete with dances and hymns in their native tongue.

Tensions will remain high in this region as long as the drug trafficking continues. But Kuna Christians are optimistic that the gospel's influence will continue to flourish, and one day this tropical paradise will send missionaries around the world.

This story originally aired March 3, 2009.

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Chuck Holton

Chuck Holton

CBN News Correspondent

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