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Panama: Involvement in Political and Economic Affairs
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Administration and Operations of the Defense Forces > Involvement in Political and Economic Affairs


Panama's security forces have changed dramatically since independence. Originally established as a police force after the national army was abolished, these forces evolved toward a paramilitary configuration during the 1950s and 1960s. In the late 1970s, they began to evolve once more as Panama assumed responsibility for defending the canal. During each successive stage, prior functions and missions were not abandoned; rather, new ones were added. These three different stages of institutional development were associated with three distinct types of military participation in politics. During the earliest period when the security forces performed a police role, the institution merely reflected the interests of the dominant civilian elite. Thus, they were used to keep the peace and to prevent the urban masses from challenging the elite through strikes and other socially disruptive types of activity.

With the adoption of a paramilitary role, the newly formed National Guard began to act politically to further its own interests and those of the commander in chief. The Guard not only began to serve as the court of last resort for settling feuds among the civilian elite, but eventually seized political power in its own name. Under the leadership of Torrijos, the National Guard and its General Staff fashioned a "civilian" political regime in their own image, but real power remained in the hands of the military In 1983 Panama implemented constitutional changes aimed at restoring direct presidential elections, but it was clear that even Torrijos's death would not force the military to give up its central role in politics. Despite the Constitution's assertion that the ultimate political authority in Panama was the will of the people, the civilian government that expressed this will was expected to rely heavily on the advice of the military. According to the Constitution, "Power emanates from the people and is exercised by the government through a distribution of functions among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches acting in harmonic collaboration with the National Guard."

The central role played by the FDP during the 1980s was the logical outgrowth of both the historical evolution of Panama's security forces and changes in the civilian sector. Before the National Guard was created in the early 1950s, officers in the National Police did not have enough social standing or sufficient institutional support to play a significant role in politics. By the 1970s, however, officers had emerged with enhanced social status, an enlarged institutional power base, and growing links with marginalized civilian groups. As the "spokesman" for these groups during the 1970s and 1980s, the military worked to implement social and economic policies viewed as being both in the interest of these groups and of benefit to the military itself.

In the economic sphere, the National Guard and the Defense Forces have sought to have civilian technocrats whose views were similar to those of the military appointed to key decision-making positions. During the 1970s, for example, Torrijos worked with a small group of professionals from the reform wing of the National Liberal Party, placing them in key government positions. And in supporting the presidential candidacy of Nicolás Ardito Barletta Vallarino (a former vice president of the World Bank) in 1984, the Defense Forces once again demonstrated their penchant for working with like-minded civilian professionals.

Top FDP officers were also alleged to have been engaged in a wide variety of legal and illegal business activities. A series of articles published in the New York Times in 1986 suggested that the FDP commander was deeply involved in both drug transactions and arms smuggling. Panama's alleged role in the drug business had never historically been related to production activities (although some marijuana was supposedly grown there), but rather to transshipment and the laundering of illicitly obtained funds. The articles went so far as to suggest that the FDP commander in chief was not only aware of these activities but played an active role in encouraging them. Subsequently, additional credible evidence of FDP involvement in drug-trafficking and moneylaundering activities continued to surface.

The Defense Forces have at times cooperated with the United States government in some activities related to drug trafficking, such as making arrests, extraditing traffickers, and seizing boats carrying drug cargoes. In response to a United States request, Panama made drug money-laundering illegal in 1986 and agreed to give United States authorities access to certain bank records in drug investigations. "Operation Pisces," a drugs and moneylaundering sting launched by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1987 against cocaine traffickers, received extensive support from Panamanian authorities. Nevertheless, observers increasingly believed that such cooperation was an expedient ploy to sacrifice lower-level operations and personnel in order to safeguard more significant illegal activities.

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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