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Brigadier General Omar Torrijos Herrera

On November 18, 1903, Secretary of State John Hay, representing the United States, and Special Envoy Philippe Bunau-Varilla, representing the Republic of Panama, signed an agreement that became known as the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. According to Article I of that treaty, the United States guaranteed Panamanian independence (see The 1903 Treaty and Qualified Independence , ch. 1). With that kind of insurance, the rulers of the new republic did not need to be concerned about developing armed forces.

When the country gained its independence, an oversized battalion of former Colombian troops under the command of General Estéban Huertas became the Panamanian army. Huertas and his soldiers had favored the independence movement and had switched their allegiance from Colombia to Panama. The general was named commander in chief of the small army and became one of Panama's most prominent citizens; however, when he tried to give orders to the new republic's first president, Manuel Amador Guerrero, the general was forced into retirement, and the army was demobilized. Although Huertas failed in his attempt to use the armed force as a political instrument, he established a precedent for such attempts.

To replace the disbanded army, the Corps of National Police was formed in December 1904 and for the next forty-nine years functioned as the country's only armed force. The government decree establishing the National Police authorized a force of 700, and the tiny provincial (formerly Colombian) police force that had been operating since independence was incorporated into the new organization. The corps was deployed territorially, and by 1908 its overall strength had risen to 1,000. The heaviest concentration of forces was (and has continued to be) in the Panama City area. For many years strength fluctuated, but generally remained close to 1,000 depending on budgetary allowances. There were, however, massive turnovers of personnel as new political regimes came to power and used positions in the police corps as patronage plums. By the 1940s some stability had been achieved, but it was not until the presidency of José Antonio Remón in the early 1950s that institutionalization of the corps took place, and the National Police was designated the National Guard.

The emergence of the National Guard and its successor institution, the FDP, as powerful actors in domestic politics is inextricably intertwined with the professional military career of Colonel Remón. Born in 1908 to a middle-class family, he studied at the then prestigious National Institute, which served as the training ground for sons of wealthy families. Upon graduation, he received a scholarship to attend the Mexican Military Academy, and he graduated from there in 1931. Because few Panamanian police officers at that time had academy training of any sort, he entered the National Police as a captain. By 1947 he had become commandant of police.

Remón's ability to convert the police into an important political force resulted not only from his personal and professional skills but also from the nature of Panamanian politics during the late 1940s and early 1950s (see The National Guard in Ascendance , ch. 1). As a military academy graduate, Remón realized the limitations of a police force both as an organization commanding national respect and as an instrument for wielding political power. In 1953, therefore, he created the National Guard.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the National Guard was militarized and professionalized, largely with United States aid under the Mutual Security Act. This trend away from the police roots and toward increased military status accelerated during the 1960s, as a result of the perceived threat from Fidel Castro's Cuba. More Panamanian officers and enlisted personnel were trained at United States facilities in the Canal Zone, and military assistance increased dramatically during the 1960s.

Remón was assassinated in 1955, but the legacy of militarization that he passed on to his successor, General Bolívar Vallarino, had culminated by the late 1960s in the formation of a National Guard that was increasingly sure of its professional identity and no longer averse to becoming involved in politics. Total force strength reached 5,000 with an officer corps of 465; an increasing number of officers had received academy training. Although police work still predominated and many officers were promoted from the ranks of "street cops," middle-ranking officers such as Torrijos were increasingly drawn from the small but growing band of academy graduates. Within the National Guard, there were more positions requiring officers with formal military training. For instance, a special public-order force was created in 1959, in response to an amphibious invasion launched from Cuba by a small group of armed Panamanians. New rifle companies were formed during this same period, the prototypes of the contemporary FDP combat battalions formed in the 1980s.

In spite of all these changes in Panama's military institution, it was not until the coup of 1968 and the political ascendancy of Torrijos that the National Guard began to make a lasting imprint on the socioeconomic structure of the country. With the death of Remón in 1955, the role of the armed forces in mobilizing the lower classes against the urban commercial elite had been curtailed, and politics were once again controlled by the oligarchy. Torrijos changed that, introducing a populist brand of politics as well as further expanding and professionalizing the National Guard (see The Government of Torrijos and the National Guard , ch. 1).

During the Torrijos years (1968-81), rank structure within the National Guard allowed control by a single military leader in the tradition of Remón and Vallarino. This phenomenon of a single institutional leader may have resulted because the police and National Guard had traditionally been institutions with low esteem and few links to the national political system. Regardless of the reason, Torrijos was the only general, the positions on the general staff being occupied by lieutenant colonels. Torrijos controlled the National Guard through a highly centralized administrative structure. Although there were by now a number of light infantry companies and other units with some combat potential, Torrijos managed to exercise independent control over all of the infantry companies and all officer assignments. During the Torrijos years, the National Guard was still small enough for Torrijos to maintain a close and personal working relationship not only with members of the officer corps but also with enlisted personnel.

From 1968 until Torrijos's death in 1981, the National Guard continued the expansion, militarization, and professionalization that had begun under Remón in the late 1940s. Furthermore, dramatic changes took place in officer recruitment and training. During the 1950s and 1960s, most academy-trained officers entering the National Guard were members of the lower-middle class, who had received their military training in Mexico and other countries in Central America; Torrijos himself was schooled in El Salvador. During the 1970s, more junior officers attended South American academies, such as those in Brazil, Peru, Chile, Venezuela, and Argentina.

Since World War II, Panama had maintained close security ties to the United States, and that country had assisted in the development of Panama's military institutions. Panama had been one of the twenty original signatories to the 1945 Act of Chapultepec, binding the countries of Latin America and the United States to a mutual defense agreement by which all were to respond to an external attack against any one. Two years later most of the same countries (including Panama) signed the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty), which also provided for mutual defense against external attack, but further bound the signers to peaceful arbitration of disputes arising among member states. In 1948 the charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) incorporated the provisions of the Rio Treaty. Panama also signed the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin American (Tlatelolco Treaty) in 1967, an agreement that prohibited the deployment of nuclear weapons in Latin America. A bilateral military assistance pact existed between the United States and Panama and, under the Panama Canal treaties, the two countries pledged themselves to the joint defense of the Panama Canal.

Data as of December 1987

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