Put Panama's Military in Its Place

By , Luis Salas is director of the Center for the Administration of Justice, and Mark B. Rosenberg is director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center, both at Florida International University.

PANAMA'S tortured history is entering a new phase of opportunities and challenges. A central question that confronts the new civilian leadership is the future of the country's defense forces and their relationship to the administration of justice. In the past, Panama's military dominated the country's political life. Such domination led directly to the dictatorship of Gen. Manuel Noriega. Development of Panama's military model was related to US interests in guaranteeing the security of the Panama Canal. What began as a small police force gradually evolved into the foremost political power in the country, often intervening to determine the nation's leaders.

A turning point came in 1968, when Gen. Omar Torrijos assumed power after the National Guard-led ouster of the elected president, Arnulfo Arias. General Torrijos had two major objectives: putting the canal under Panama's control and consolidating the power of the National Guard. He succeeded.

First, with President Jimmy Carter he negotiated the treaty that gives Panama control over the canal in the year 2000. Second, he expanded the mission of the Guard by extending its control over the country's public administration.

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Even though Torrijos expanded the military's role in national politics, he had a stabilizing effect on the country. His untimely death in 1981 opened a vacuum that his intelligence chief, Manuel Noriega, quickly filled. Since then, the country has had two fraudulent elections (in 1984 and 1989) and eight presidents. During this same period, the National Guard changed its name to the Panamanian Defense Forces and virtually became a power unto itself.

As the smoke from the US invasion clears, attention turns again to Panama's military. One of the new government's first acts has been to reconstitute a police force that will gradually replace US soldiers in the streets of Panama. Many had hoped that the Panamanian civil authorities would follow the Costa Rican model and abolish the Defense Forces.

In name this has happened. However, it appears that senior Defense Forces colonels will be in charge of the new force. It is unclear how, if at all, meaningful change will occur in the PDF's role and mission.

If the new Panamanian civilian authorities and the US government are genuinely interested in preventing the resurrection of the old-line military machine, then several important measures should immediately be considered:

1. Remove the United States military from direct involvement in the organization, selection, and training of Panama's new police forces. Not only is the US military unsuited as midwife for a new police force, but its prior involvement contributed to the development of the Defense Forces and their excesses. Further, careful review should be given to the use in Panama of US Justice Department police trainers who may pay little attention to the long-term political consequences of their activities. Panama should look to European and other Latin American countries for assistance in this area. For example, Costa Rica's experience offers important lessons for Panama's new civilian leaders.

2. Create an independent, professional, career judiciary. Under Torrijos and Noriega, the judiciary had become subservient to the military and actively involved in politics. For the rule of law to be reestablished, major efforts will be needed to recruit new judges and reorganize this important branch of government. It could then assume direction of a judicial police patterned after Costa Rica's Judicial Investigation Agency. This unit would be responsible for investigating all felonies and serious crimes, but under the strict control of the country's judiciary.

3. Establish a small and professional civilian police agency under direct control of the executive branch. This unit would eventually be responsible for the security of the Panama Canal, while also carrying out traditional police functions. By limiting the functions of the police, non-police functions such as customs and immigration could be transferred to their corresponding civilian ministries.

The new government has taken seriously the need to reform the administration of justice through its appointment of Vice President Ricardo Arias as the new minister of justice. However, the continued high-profile US military presence may work against internal efforts to construct a new civil order. The greatest guarantee of preventing the reemergence of the military as a political power is the consolidation of the country's administration of justice under firm civilian control.

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