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

NATIONAL SECURITY


As perceived by the Defense Forces, threats to national security were of two basic types: those arising from domestic insurgency and those of foreign origin. Although the FDP has conducted military exercises to deal with the contingency of guerrilla activity, there was no such activity in Panama through the mid-1980s.

To understand the military's perception of internal threat, it is important to note that the Defense Forces were closely identified with the formation of the political regime in existence in the late 1980s. This regime was formed in 1968 when Torrijos and the National Guard seized power through a coup d'état. For two decades, the military served as the ultimate guarantor of this political regime, whether headed as it was in the early 1970s by Torrijos or later by a succession of civilian presidents. Given this history of close military association with the existing political regime, there has been a tendency to view any domestic political challenge to it (democratic or otherwise) as a threat to national security.

The belief by members of opposition political parties that the direct elections for president held in 1984 had been rigged by the FDP led them to challenge the legitimacy of Ardito Barletta's government. When he was removed by the Defense Forces in 1985 and replaced by Eric Arturo Delvalle Henríquez, political opposition groups became even more vociferous in their charges of military interference in politics. Charges of electoral fraud and FDP involvement in perpetrating it were rendered even more credible in 1986, when articles in the New York Times cited high United States government officials as having proof that the electoral results had been rigged.

Responses by the Defense Forces to these charges of electoral fraud demonstrated the relationship they saw as existing between domestic political opposition and national security. In April 1986, following a period in which United States congressmen and Panamanian political parties openly criticized the Defense Forces, 400 lieutenants issued a statement that was read by one of their number on national television. The "Lieutenants' Declaration" suggested that foreign and domestic groups were attacking the FDP in an effort to destroy its national cohesion and undermine national security: "For the first time in our republican history . . . political groups -- although they consider themselves to be democratic and idealistic -- have adopted an open position of selling out the national interest and have opened up the embarrassing possibility of foreign intervention."

The FDP viewed this threat to national security as also emanating from the links between the domestic political opposition and certain United States congressional leaders opposed to the existing regime. President Delvalle and the FDP suggested that there was a "seditious plot" involving the United States Department of State and certain "bad Panamanians" aiming not only to have the president removed from office but also to roll back the clock to the 1960s, when the oligarchy dominated the political arena.

Troops of the Defense Forces, particularly the First Public Order Company (Doberman), have been used on occasion to quell domestic rioting viewed as a threat to national security. Most public demonstrations and riots during the mid-1980s resulted from deteriorating economic conditions related to the global recession. In 1986 the National Council of Organized Workers called a fortyeight -hour general strike that eventually resulted in some random violence and one death. The most extensive use of military forces to quell domestic violence came in 1987, following accusations about Noriega's involvement in electoral fraud and narcotics trafficking made by the forcibly retired former chief of staff, Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera.

Whereas the Panamanian military's role as a police force had traditionally conditioned it to concentrate on internal threats to national security, the FDP has increasingly turned its attention to the external environment. The crises affecting several of the countries in Central America, coupled with the FDP's assumption of the new military mission of defending the canal, has led to a serious concern with security policy in the broadest sense. New units such as the Peace Battalion were specifically charged with defending the border and preventing illegal immigration from countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador. Battalion 2000's participation in United States-Panamanian military field exercises was intended to make it capable of rebuffing threats to the canal from guerrilla groups supported by a foreign power.

To the extent that Panamanian foreign policy is a reflection of opinion within the FDP, it suggests that the military thinks geostrategically about the security of the canal in the context of a volatile regional situation. Panama, as one of the original "Core Four" mediators (along with Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia) in the Contadora peace process, has been an active participant in the search for negotiated peace settlements in Central America. However, the Panamanians have argued, often through Noriega, that any peace treaty for Central America with no military "teeth" would not bring true peace. In addition, Noriega has often stated that the region's military leaders must be actively involved in the peace process. The FDP's view appears to be that the security of Panama and the canal demands a strong regional military structure capable of ensuring treaty compliance. From the above, it can be gathered that the FDP has come to view questions of national security in much the same light as they have traditionally been viewed by other Latin American armies.

The magazine Defensa, published by the G-3 of the Defense Forces, is an indispensable source of information concerning military developments in Panama. It contains articles on organizational structure, military exercises, and political orientation. For a broad understanding of the historical evolution of the military since independence, two books are useful: Renato Pereira's Panamá: fuerzas armadas y política and Steve C. Ropp's Panamanian Politics: From Guarded Nation to National Guard. The Panama Canal treaties, implementation agreements, and records of congressional hearings on the treaties are essential as sources of information on Panamanian security affairs and the future United States role in those affairs. The administration of justice as well as a range of matters affecting United StatesPanamanian security relations were treated at length in the hearings on "The Situation in Panama" held by the United States Senate in March and April 1986. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

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 Factba.se.

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