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Panama Table of Contents


Military Zones

Organizational descriptions of the Defense Forces included a structure of four military regions within which the military zones operated (see fig. 11). In 1987, however, these regions existed only on paper. Noriega had referred to the military regions as areas "which constitute the strategic triangles of national security," but their eventual activation was thought to be linked to the further elaboration and expansion of Panama's four combat battalions.

During the 1950s and 1960s, when the National Guard was still primarily a police force, the military zones together with the General Staff were the heart of the institution. Commanders of the ten military zones into which the country was then divided were powerful figures who often served as de facto provincial governors. Usually holding the rank of major, they could expect their next assignment to be command of another zone or a position on the General Staff, then largely composed of lieutenant colonels. When the National Guard gave way to the FDP, the zone commanders' role remained significant even though the 1983 law made no specific provision for military zones; it simply stated, "The internal regulations of the Defense Forces . . . can divide the territory . . . into regions, military zones, detachments, districts, or any other form of division suitable for the better exercise of institutional functions . . . ."

In the mid-1980s, zone commanders continued to be regarded as the most powerful individuals in the provinces, surpassing by far the importance of the provincial governors. They controlled political, military, and economic affairs in the zones, and they rather than the governors settled labor disputes and strikes. Within the FDP, the zone commanders, generally holding the rank of major, were also significant. They were personally selected by the FDP commander and were directly responsible to him. Military units headquartered within the zones, including the emergent combat battalions, appeared to be fully integrated into the zones and thus firmly under the control of the zone commanders. The Fifth Military Zone, for example, was the home base of the Peace Battalion, whose commander reported directly to the zone commander.

There were twelve military zones in 1987, the most recent having been created in 1986 in the Comarca de San Blas (see fig. 1). This area had traditionally exercised considerable territorial autonomy as the home of the Cuna Indians (see Indians , ch. 2). Their traditional suspicion of the Guard (and their attempt to insulate themselves from Hispanic politico-military influence) was partially overcome in the 1980s, when more Indians entered the military, and as a result of increased encroachment on their territory by Colombians and settlers from other parts of Panama. Nevertheless, the creation of the Twelfth Military Zone became acceptable to the Cuna only after lengthy FDP lobbying and the granting of various concessions.

Data as of December 1987