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Panama: National Security
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security


According to the 1983 amended version of the 1972 Constitution of the Republic of Panama, the national defense and public security of the country are the responsibility of the Panama Defense Forces (Fuerzas de Defensa de Panamá -- FDP). Before the FDP was created in 1983, a paramilitary organization called the National Guard had handled national security functions. After the 1968 military coup that brought General Omar Torrijos Herrera to power, the National Guard became the dominant political institution in the country. This legacy of military involvement in politics continued after Torrijos's death in 1981, even though the political system was ostensibly transformed from a military dictatorship into a civilian democracy, and the National Guard replaced by the FDP.

Negotiation of the Panama Canal treaties during the late 1970s led to changes in Panama's national security system. When the Canal Zone was integrated into the republic, people began to think of their country as a single territorial entity. This changed attitude was reflected in the military segments of the National Guard, which moved to make the institution less a police force and more a true national army capable of defending the expanded national territory. The implementation agreements of the treaties referred to the "Panamanian Armed Forces," rather than to "Panama's police force" or "Panama's paramilitary force," as had been done in the past. Transformation of the National Guard into a national army was accomplished in 1983, when legislation was passed creating the FDP.

The treaties also stimulated creation of a national army by reducing United States responsibility in Panama. Since the early 1900s, the armed forces of the United States had provided the primary defense of the Canal Zone and, in effect, of Panama itself. The treaties mandate cooperation and coordination in the protection and defense of the canal until December 31, 1999, when the United States is to withdraw its troops. After 1999 Panama will be fully responsible for the operation, but the United States will continue to share responsibility for the defense of the canal.

By the mid-1980s, the strength of the FDP was estimated at around 15,000, including the Ground Forces, composed of infantry battalions and companies equivalent in size to a small army or United States infantry brigade. Other major segments were the Panamanian Air Force, National Navy, Police Forces, and National Guard. The FDP was theoretically administered through the Ministry of Government and Justice; there was no ministry of defense.

Internal security problems, however, grew in the 1980s. By 1987 widespread concern over the lack of democratic institutions had generated major challenges to government authority. The integrity of the Panamanian system of justice was broadly questioned as well as the personal ethics of highly placed government officials. Newspapers in Panama and the United States reported widespread drug trafficking within the country and implicated the FDP. Panama was alleged to be both a transshipment point for the movement of drugs from South America to North America and a banking haven for laundering funds. The volume of such activity was not documented, however. In response to a general strike and widespread public disturbances, the government declared a state of emergency (subsequently lifted) and temporarily suspended articles of the Constitution guaranteeing basic rights such as freedom of speech and assembly.

Data as of December 1987

Last Updated: December 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Panama was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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