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Military of Panama

Panama is the second country in Latin America (the other being Costa Rica) to permanently abolish standing armies. This came as a result of a US invasion that overthrew a military dictatorship which ruled the country from 1968 to 1989. The final military dictator, Manuel Noriega, had greatly embarrassed the US president, George H. W. Bush, when American media exposed his long history of drug trafficking with US government knowledge. Many American conservatives had also long been hostile to Panama's military dictators because, in contrast to most Latin American dictators who favored the political right in the United States, Panama's military dictators were (at least nominally) leftists.


The National Police

Panama's first army was formed in 1903, when the commander of a brigade of the Colombian army defected to the pro-independence side during Panama's fight for independence. His brigade became the Panamanian army.

In 1904, the army tried to overthrow the government, but failed. The United States persuaded Panama that a standing army could threaten the security of the Panama Canal Zone. Instead, the country set up a "National Police." For 48 years, this was the only armed force in Panama.

However, starting in the late 1930s, the National Police attracted several new recruits who had attended military academies in other Latin American countries. Combined with increased spending on the police, this began a process of militarization. The process sped up under José Remón, who became the Police's commandant (commanding officer) in 1947. He himself had graduated from Mexico's military academy. He began promoting fewer enlisted men to officer rank, giving the police a more military character.

The National Guard

After playing a role in overthrowing two presidents, Remón resigned his commission and became president himself in 1952. His first act was to reorganize the National Police along military lines with a new name, the National Guard. The new grouping retained police functions as well. With a new name came increased American funding.

In 1968, the Guard overthrew President Arnulfo Arias in a coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Omar Torrijos and Major Boris Martínez. They completed the process of converting the Guard into a full-fledged army. In the process, they promoted themselves to full colonel. Torrijos thrust Martínez aside in 1969, promoted himself to brigadier general, and was de facto ruler of the country until his death in a 1981 plane crash.

The Panamanian Defense Forces

Torrijos was eventually replaced by Manuel Noriega, who merged all of Panama's armed forces under his command as the Panamanian Defense Forces. He built the PDF into a well-trained force, and further consolidated the dictatorship. Under Noriega, the PDF was a feared tool of repression.

However, the United States managed to survive the trial when they invaded Panama and overthrew Noriega in 1989.

Panamanian Public Forces

On February 10, 1990 the government of then President Guillermo Endara abolished Panama's military and reformed the security apparatus by creating the Panamanian Public Forces. In October 1994, Panama's Legislative Assembly approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting the creation of a standing military force, but allowing the establishment of a special temporal military to counter acts of "external aggression."

The PPF includes the National Police, National Maritime Service, and National Air Service and an armed Institutional Protection Service or SPI for protection of public buildings. The PPF is also capable of performing limited military duties.

In contrast to the former PDF, is on public record and under control of the executive.

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Further reading

  • Military Foundations of Panamanian Politics, Robert C. Harding, Transaction Publishing, 2001.
  • The History of Panama, Robert C. Harding, Greenwood Publishing, 2006.

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