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Ground Forces

Panama's Ground Forces, officially the Ground Forces for Defense and National Security (Fuerzas Terrestres de Defensa y Seguridad Nacional), constituted a critical element within the FDP in the late 1980s. Their primary mission appeared to be to develop the capability to defend the canal after the year 2000. However, these forces had developed historically in response to other needs. Before the 1931 coup d'état that removed President Florencio H. Arosemena, the United States had frequently intervened militarily to oversee elections and quell riots (see United States Intervention and Strained Relations , ch. 1). The United States' decision not to use troops in 1931 to prevent the coup precipitated a change in the Panamanian military. It was now clearly up to the national police to guarantee internal security through the formation of a troop contingent.

Proposals were made to create a militarily trained police reserve unit of battalion strength, to respond quickly to serious disorders, but political fears and budgetary limitations prevented action on the proposals. Renewed efforts through the years met with the same lack of success. The 1959 amphibious landing of Panamanian dissidents demonstrated that the National Guard, which was still primarily a police organization, lacked the training and the capability to repulse even a small-scale attack. Plans were then made to create a Public Order Company (Compañía de Orden Público) that could serve as a field force as well as a police reserve.

A police detachment stationed at Panamá Viejo (Old Panama, a suburb of Panama City) was used as a cadre in forming of the new Public Order Company, which was to quell public disturbances and rebellions; to assist on special occasions, such as sporting events, parades, and ceremonies; to maintain order during natural disasters; to accomplish rescues in the jungles and mountains and at sea; to furnish raiding parties for police actions; and to act by virtue of its existence as a deterrent to social disorder. Many of the company's original personnel were sent for special training to United States Army schools in the Canal Zone.

The Public Order Company was the precursor of the eight infantry companies (compañías de infantería) that in the late 1980s constituted the major portion of Panama's Ground Forces. These companies had been established individually as necessary to perform a wide variety of tasks in addition to those mentioned above.

The eight infantry companies, sometimes referred to as combat companies (compañías de combate) or rifle companies (compañías de fusileros), were generally patterned on the standard infantry rifle company of the United States Army, although the Panamanians did not have the wide range of equipment available to their United States counterparts. The infantry companies were usually commanded by captains who had lieutenants as executive officers and platoon leaders. Squads were led by sergeants. Directly subordinate to the office of the commander (comandancía), the infantry companies were deployed at the discretion of the commander in chief. Although they had on occasion been used as quick-reaction, antiriot forces, the establishment of a special unit within the Police Forces (the First Public Order Company--Doberman) had preempted their use for such purposes. The strength of the infantry companies was estimated to average 200 personnel each. As of the mid-1980s, the FDP had sixteen V-150 and twelve to thirteen V-300 armored personnel carriers.

Infantry units were traditionally garrisoned within a thirtykilometer radius of Panama City, with the exception of one rifle company at David and two at Omar Torrijos Military Base (formerly Río Hato). This deployment changed, however, with the creation of new combat battalions. In the late 1980s, the First Infantry Company, an airmobile company called the Tigres, was stationed at Tinajita. The Second Infantry Company (Pumas) guarded General Omar Torrijos International Airport (more commonly known as Tocumen International Airport). The Third Infantry Company (Diablos Rojos) was located in David, the capital of Chiriquí Province, near the Costa Rican border. The Fourth Infantry Company (Urraca) was stationed at the Central Headquarters in Panama City to protect the General Staff and comandancía. The Fifth Military Police Company (Victoriano Lorenzo) was headquartered at Fort Amador in the canal area. The Sixth Infantry Company (Expedicionaria) and Seventh Infantry company (Macho del Monte) were headquartered at Omar Torrijos Military Base; these two companies, which controlled some of the country's light armored vehicles, once in essence represented Torrijos's private army. Finally, the Eighth Military Police Company was stationed at Fort Espinar on the Atlantic side of the isthmus.

Another component of the Ground Forces was the Cavalry Squadron (Escuadrón de Caballería), stationed at Panamá Viejo. Although primarily a ceremonial unit, it was called upon to perform crowdcontrol duties when situations warranted. Cavalrymen assumed routine police duties when not employed in their mounted roles. The Cavalry Squadron has a long and colorful history. A mounted unit in the national police force dates back to the early days of the republic, when a frontier atmosphere prevailed and mounted troopers pursued cattle rustlers and other bandits. Through the years the unit underwent various reorganizations and changes in deployment, eventually leaving its rural posts for Panama City. Despite its name, the mounted unit in the mid-1980s bore little organizational resemblance to the old-time, battalion-size cavalry squadron. The unit was actually similar to an infantry company in that the squadron commander was a captain, his executive officer was a lieutenant, and the platoons and squads were led by lieutenants and sergeants, respectively.

The new mission assumed by the armed forces in the 1980s-- defense of the canal--prompted the creation of four new combat battalions. The need for such battalions was premised on the belief that defense of the canal until the year 2000 and thereafter required the ability to defend not only the immediate environs of the waterway but also the various approaches to it. Fearing that conflicts elsewhere in Central America might spill over into Panama, the nation wanted to protect its borders with Colombia and Costa Rica. Of the four battalions envisioned (Battalion 2000, Peace Battalion, Cemaco Battalion, and Pedro Prestán Battalion), Battalion 2000 was by far the most fully developed by the mid1980s . It was headquartered at Fort Cimarrón and commanded by a major who had a captain as his chief executive officer. The heart of Battalion 2000's combat potential consisted of an airmobile company, an airborne company, a mechanized company, and an infantry company; the First Rifle Company at Tinajita provided fire support. The Peace Battalion, commanded by a captain, was headquartered in the town of Río Sereno near the Costa Rican border. In theory, the Cemaco Battalion, also commanded by a captain, was to be headquartered in Darién Province at La Palma near the Colombian border. Nevertheless, as of late 1987 its status was uncertain. It appeared to be only a company-sized element despite its designation as a battalion, and its actual location had not been finalized. When established, the Pedro Prestán Battalion was to be headquartered in Corona. In late 1987, it had not yet taken shape, however.

Also attached to the Ground Forces were a number of battalions supplying support services: the Military Police Battalion (Batallón de Policía Militar), composed of the Fifth and Eighth Military Police Companies; the Military Health Battalion (Batallón de Salud Militar); the Transport Battalion (Batallón de Transporte y Mantenimiento); and the Military Engineering Battalion (Batallón de Ingenería Militar). The Military Health Battalion was commanded by a captain and the others by majors.

Data as of December 1987

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