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Panama: United States Forces In Panama
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > United States Forces in Panama


United States military forces have been present in Panama since that nation broke away from Colombia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Indeed, the presence of the U.S.S. Nashville and the U.S.S. Dixie had influenced the outcome of Panama's revolt. Even before completion of the canal, United States soldiers or marines occasionally intervened in Panamanian affairs, usually at the request of local officials and in compliance with the 1903 treaty that gave the United States government broad discretionary powers. United States intervention took a new turn in 1918, when the United States unilaterally intervened to restore stability during a Panamanian political crisis. Most United States forces withdrew after elections were held and the crisis eased; however, a detachment of marines remained in Chiriquí Province for about two years for the purpose of maintaining public order.

Even though the National Police had been somewhat professionalized under the leadership of Albert R. Lamb, police authority dissolved in 1925 in the face of a renters' strike in Panama City. High rents charged for workers' housing by the urban oligarchy caused the strike, which turned violent and resulted in many deaths during two days of rioting. Panamanian authorities requested aid, and 600 United States Army troops carrying rifles with fixed bayonets entered the city to restore order. The rioters were dispersed, and for twelve days United States soldiers patrolled the streets keeping order and guarding government officials and property. Similar rent strikes recurred in 1932 but with the National Police restoring order. Intervention or the threat of intervention from United States forces continued to be an irritant to the Panamanian people and a cause célèbre for Panamanian politicians over the next several years. In 1936 negotiations between the two countries resulted in an agreement that prohibited United States intervention in Panamanian civil affairs.

During and immediately after World War II, the United States military presence in the Canal Zone underwent a metamorphosis corresponding to broad hemispheric developments. When Nazi activities in Latin America became widespread, and to counteract German influence, interest in some kind of joint defense revived. Shortly before the United States entered the war in December 1941, the United States had begun to establish military missions in the capital cities of the Latin American republics. The missions served as liaison agencies between the military establishment of the United States and those of the Latin American countries, and mission personnel became advisers to the Latin American military. After the war, canal defense continued to be the primary United States mission, but the United States Caribbean Command in Panama retained responsibility for United States security interests throughout Latin America and administered the aid and advisory programs for the entire area. In 1963 the Caribbean Command was redesignated the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), retaining the same functions and responsibilities.

Transfer of control of the Canal Zone to Panama in 1979 did not substantially alter the mission of SOUTHCOM because the United States retained primary responsibility for defense; as a result, observers expected SOUTHCOM or a similar successor organization to remain in place until United States obligation under the Panama Canal treaties is fulfilled at the end of the century. SOUTHCOM is what is known in common military parlance as a unified command, that is, one in which all services operate under, and are responsible to, a single commander. Because the army has historically been the principal component of United States forces in Panama, SOUTHCOM has been under the command of an army general.

The primary missions of SOUTHCOM remained much as they had been during previous decades: to defend the Panama Canal, to administer programs of military assistance to Latin American military institutions, to coordinate United States participation in joint military exercises in the region, and to help with disaster relief. Major SOUTHCOM installations included the general headquarters at Quarry Heights, Fort Clayton, Fort Davis, Fort Sherman, Rodman Naval Base, Fort Amador, and Howard Air Force Base. Fort Clayton served as headquarters for the most important United States military unit in the area, the 193d Infantry Brigade. The Brigade consisted of two infantry battalions, one special forces battalion, and a combat support battalion, in addition to other specialized units. Overall SOUTHCOM military strength in the mid-1980s was approximately 9,400 men and women of the army, navy, and air force. By the terms of the Panama Canal treaties, the United States pledged to maintain its armed forces at a peacetime manning level, that is, not in excess of the number that were present in the zone just before the treaty became effective.

A Status-of-Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the United States and Panama was combined with the Base Rights Agreement as part of the Panama Canal treaties. The SOFA details the legal rights and obligations of United States military personnel and their dependents residing in Panama and stipulates crimes over which the United States military or the Panamanian courts have jurisdiction.

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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