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Panama: Missions and Organization of the Defense Forces
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Missions and Organization of the Defense Forces


On September 29, 1983, a new law -- Law 20 -- created the FDP as the successor institution to the National Guard. The law simultaneously repealed all previous legislation relating to the organization, mission, and functions of the Panamanian armed forces, including Law 44 of December 23, 1953 and Law 50 of November 30, 1958. Opposition parties strongly criticized the new law, claiming that it "implies the militarization of national life, converts Panama into a police state, makes the members of the armed forces privileged citizens, and gives the commander of the National Guard authoritarian and totalitarian power." However, the Defense Forces' commander in chief, General Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno, claimed that the change in the law was necessary, in order to confront the deteriorating security situation in Central America and to prepare the military for its growing role in defending the Panama Canal.

The functions of the FDP stated in the organic law were very broad, giving it an increasing role and bringing other organizations under its control. Major functions included protecting the life and property of Panamanians and foreigners living in Panama; cooperating with civilian authorities to guarantee individual rights in the republic; preventing crime; defending the Panama Canal in cooperation with the United States as specified under terms of the treaties; regulating traffic; and cooperating with civilian authorities in the areas of drug trafficking, contraband, and illegal immigration.

The new organizational structure established by the 1983 law created a "public force" that brought a broad array of institutions under a single operational command. The FDP encompassed the General Staff, Military Regions and Zones, Ground Forces, Panamanian Air Force, National Navy, Police Forces, and National Guard. In addition, the FDP would include any institution created in the future that might perform functions similar to the institutions listed above. One effect of these changes was to reduce the National Guard to only one of a number of co-equal military institutions, within the FDP structure that was bound together, as the Guard had been, through a single command and commander in chief

Although the Constitution designates the president of the republic as the supreme chief of the FDP, this role is largely symbolic. The law specifies that he "will exercise his command by means of orders, instructions, resolutions, and regulations which will be transmitted through the commander in chief." The FDP enjoyed administrative autonomy that in effect allowed it to determine its own internal procedures in regard to personnel policies, disciplinary sanctions against FDP members, organizations created to further the social welfare of members, and recommendations for the defense budget.

Since there was no role for civilian officials in determining FDP policy and the organization was under a single military command, the law itself provided the only parameters for the commander in chief's role. The duties of the commander in chief were very broad and sometimes simply restated duties assigned to the FDP as a whole. The commander in chief was charged, for example, with adopting "measures needed to guarantee the security of inhabitants and their property and the preservation of the public order and social peace." The commander in chief was also required to keep the president abreast of any developments in the area of national security and to participate in all modifications of the law that would affect the FDP.

Within the FDP, the commander in chief was responsible for promotions, transfers, and awarding military decorations. He supervised disciplinary measures and was to improve "the moral and material condition of the institution as well as the cultural and intellectual condition of its members." The president of the republic could replace the FDP's top officer in case of retirement, death, disobedience of orders that were supported by constitutional provisions, and personal incapacity.

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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