By Dialogo September 15, 2009 More than 4,500 personnel from 20 countries began a 12-day exercise here Friday to train in a joint, multinational effort to ensure the security of the Panama Canal. U.S. and Panamanian officials held a formal opening ceremony Fuerzas Aliadas (Allied Forces) PANAMAX 2009, co-sponsored by U.S. Southern Command and the Government of Panama, in Panama City, Panama. Representatives of the 20 participating nations joined Jose Raul Mulino, Panama’s Minister of Government and Justice, and U.S. Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Gerald W. Ketchum, Director of Stability for U.S. Southern Command, at the ceremony. FA PANAMAX 2009 is one of the largest multinational training exercises in the world, and is taking place in the waters off the coasts of Panama from Sept. 11-22 with the participation of civil and military forces. More than 20 vessels and a dozen aircraft are involved in the exercises. Participants are focusing on a variety of responses to any request from the Government of Panama to protect and guarantee safe passage of traffic through the Panama Canal, ensure its neutrality, and respect national sovereignty. Simulated ground forces are also participating at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. “This year’s exercise will continue the tradition of strengthening partnerships and building real operational capability,” said Ketchum. “It is important to all participants, that this unique engine of regional and world economic activity remain safe, secure and prosperous. “In 2009, we will collectively exercise maritime interdiction, security operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Ketchum added. Minister Mulino also emphasized the importance of creating the legal, institutional and operational framework necessary to ensure the safeguarding of the Panama Canal. The multinational forces protecting the canal approaches will be organized under Multi-National Force-South and commanded by U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Keith M. Huber, commander of U.S. Army South. The FA PANAMAX 2009 exercise scenario includes sea-based training devoted to maritime interdiction operations, including visit, boarding, search and seizure. Virtual land-based training in San Antonio, Texas, will focus on command and control, stability operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief operations. FA PANAMAX 2009 participating nations include: Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, United States and Uruguay. France and Mexico are scheduled to participate as observers. The Conference of Central American Armies, the Organization of American States and the United Nations will also participate. Honduras withdrew from the exercise Aug. 10. PANAMAX began in 2003 with three countries: Panama, Chile and the United States. Exercise participation has greatly expanded every year since. In 2004, nine nations took part; in 2005, 15 nations were involved; in 2006, 18 nations participated; in 2007, 19 nations took part and last year 20 nations were a part of PANAMAX 2008.