PANAMA CITY — A 10-HOUR uprising Wednesday by a Panamanian colonel and an estimated 100 rebel supporters is a stark reminder of Panama's dependence on United States security help one year after the US invaded to remove Manuel Noriega. ``It just shows we're not ready and the [police] aren't ready yet to take control of Panama's situation,'' says Alfredo Maduro, a Panamanian businessman.
Former Panamanian police chief Col. Eduardo Herrera Hassan seized police headquarters Wednesday after he was plucked from an island jail hours earlier. His supporters swooped a helicopter over his cell and whisked him away amid shots.
About 500 US troops were called off their bases and into dark city streets to encircle the headquarters Wednesday after Panamanian leaders asked for help to secure the area. The troops eventually captured Colonel Herrera and rounded up supporters.
Panamanian leaders accused Herrera of mounting a coup and holding government officials hostage. The US Southern Command refused to comment during the incident, but later said GIs were protecting US and Panamanian lives. But Herrera said he was protesting the government's shabby treatment of police, not plotting a coup.
``We don't want blood or deaths'' he said. ``We want respect.''
US troops finally nabbed Herrera as he left the building shielded by reporters and walked towards the National Assembly to present his demands. At least one Herrera supporter was shot and killed and when GIs began chasing him.
Herrera was jailed in October for allegedly plotting against the government. He says his arrest was a sham to steal attention from widespread discontent over government policies.
He is unhappy because the military Panamanian Defense Force was disbanded after the invasion and turned into a police force, known as the Public Force. Many distrust police now because members come from Noriega's Army. Police moral is low.
The takeover came the same day unions held a general strike to protest government labor policy. It was the first such action since the government took power in December. Though unionists denied it, some think Herrera's escape was no coincidence.
``They were in cahoots,'' claims Civic Crusade leader Tomas Herrera. Dr. Herrera says the escape may have been timed to benefit from protests against the government. But the strike failed to broaden and was overshadowed by the police drama.
Since the invasion Washington has gradually withdrawn US military police from Panama. This month the US planned to pull out the last 100 military police still on patrol with local police. But events show Panama has a way to go to wean itself from US help.
``This denotes government weakness, that one year after the invasion, [President Guillermo] Endara has to run to US troops for a problem like this,'' says Raul Leis, director of Panama's Center for Research and Social Action. ``It shows clearly that Panama continues to be an occupied country.''