WHEN Panamanian police scurried to a luxury hotel here this week they surprised two thieves filching cash and jewels in the lobby. Police fired shots and the thugs were quickly detained. But there was one glitch in the bust. One of the thieves was a corporal in Panama's National Police. Instead of boosting public confidence in the police, the arrest helped confirm citizens' suspicions that corruption and banditry penetrate to the force's core.
Eight months after being reconstituted from Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega's military, Panama's new police force still remains under Noriega's shadow, demoralized and unable to stop a crime epidemic.
``It's impossible for citizens to expect any kind of security,'' says scholar Miguel Antonio Bernal, who was exiled under Noriega.
``These are the same guys doing exactly the same as before the US took out Ali Baba [Noriega] and left us the 40 thieves.''
Panama's soaring crime rate even has government ministers feuding. This week Planning Minister Guillermo Ford called police ``sissies'' and challenged Justice Minister Ricardo Arias Calder'on to restore public order.
The next day Mr. Arias ordered all policemen into the streets to fight crime. And, in a scene reminiscent of the Noriega years, riot police fired tear gas and bird shot at rock-throwing teenage students.
President Guillermo Endara Galimany also retired Police Chief Col. Eduardo Herrera Hass'an, who had lead the 12,000-man force since shortly after December's US invasion. Colonel Herrera was long believed unhappy with his new role as police chief.
Human rights activists scorned Herrera for leading a brutal 1987 military crackdown against a peaceful protest. But Herrera's replacement did little to pacify critics. Mr. Endara picked Lt. Col. Fernando Quezada - who is also tainted by his past ties to Noriega - as acting police chief.
The anarchy that ruled Panama City's streets during the invasion has long since disappeared. But persistent criminality in the city is having a chilling effect on the traditionally easygoing and pacific Panamanians.
``The perception...is that this has become a dangerous city,'' says lawyer Carlos L'opez Guevara, a former foreign minister.
Reliable crime statistics are hard to obtain. One reporter tried unsuccessfully for three weeks to get crime figures from police. The crime wave includes hotel and bank holdups carried out by bands of heavily armed men, two plane hijackings, and several unresolved bombings. Who's on whose side?
Many Panamanians believe thugs and cops are on the same side. ``Our general sense is that most of these robberies...are actually directed from within the Public Force,'' says Roberto Eisenmann, director of the leading newspaper La Prensa and a critic of grafting Noriega officers into the new force.
Mr. Eisenmann cites a poll showing more than 50 percent of all respondents think police pose a threat to the democratic government. He contends police have little interest in stopping crime.
``They're interested in using the problem as a justification for more firepower and militarization,'' he says.
Mr. Arias blames the crime wave on Panama's high unemployment and the abundance of high-caliber arms left over from the military regime. And he says criminals feel freer to commit crimes under a democracy than a dictatorship. While a few bad elements remain, Arias says, they do not dominate the force. He bristles at suggestions that up to 800 officers be purged simply because of past ties to Noriega.
``We would be creating pockets of Panamanians who I would call internal exiles,'' he says.
Panama's rank-and-file policemen, who earn about $280 per month for their dangerous work, complain that their .38-caliber revolvers are no match for thugs with automatic weapons. Criminals' firepower
``If they're committing a robbery with large arms, I'm not going to get involved with this tiny revolver because `bam-bam,' five shots and you have to flee,'' says policeman Delfin Caballero.
Civic crusade leader and publicist Alberto Conte says the government has put too many restrictions on the police because it fears criticism for using excessive force and abusing human rights.
While citizens distrust and joke about police, they also complain there are not enough of them. Policemen agree.
``This is one of the worst areas of the city and I'm running around alone,'' said Hector Gonz'alez on his bustling Central Market beat. ``What happens if I have a problem with three or four crooks?'' Private security agencies are thriving - a trend that worries some Panamanians. Seguridad Primera Agencia has 550 agents at banks, restaurants, and shops.
``They are building private armies,'' says Mr. Bernal. ``The majority of these security agencies are owned by former Noriega men and that's a real danger.''
The US military, which took over law enforcement during the invasion, now plays a minor role in stopping crime. Fewer than 200 US military police still share patrol duties with Panamanian cops. US military officials say they will gradually be pulled out over the next few weeks.