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The Police Forces (Fuerzas de Policía) in the mid-1980s included a number of major units and several smaller ones performing relatively minor functions. Most important was the National Department of Investigations (Departamento Nacional de Investigaciones--DENI), which has historically been viewed by many Panamanians as a kind of secret police. For most of its history, Panama has had organizations similar to the DENI. The undercover police began with the decree-law, issued by President José D. Obaldía in 1909, establishing a ten-man section in the Panama City Police and a five-man section in Colón, to engage exclusively in undercover police investigations. In effect, Obaldía created a detective organization supervised by the commander of the National Police.
In 1941, during the presidency of Arnulfo Arias Madrid, the enlarged detective agency became the National Secret Police and was removed from the jurisdiction of the police commander, although it remained under the Ministry of Government and Justice. According to the decree establishing it, the National Secret Police was to be the investigative agency dealing with infractions of the law as well as with conspiracies against the state or against national security.
In May 1960 President Ernesto de la Guardia, with the approval of the cabinet and the Permanent Legislative Commission, issued a decree-law that created the DENI to replace the National Secret Police. The new agency was removed from the Ministry of Government and Justice and placed in the Public Ministry under the direction of the attorney general. DENI powers were carefully delineated in the 1960 law; primarily an investigatory agency, it acquired broader authority that made it the Panamanian counterpart of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. Besides investigating crime, DENI was to maintain surveillance on known political extremists and potential subversives. DENI agents were authorized to maintain surveillance of hotels, pensions, and boarding houses in Panamanian cities in order to follow the movements of transients who might be potential violators of the law. The agency was also charged with administering a national identity bureau and with keeping records of all criminals and criminal activities. A fingerprint file was established by recording the prints of each citizen who applied for the national identity card (cédula).
DENI became a member of the International Organization of Criminal Police (Interpol). Sometime after the coup d'état of 1968, it was subordinated to the G-2 of the National Guard's General Staff. In the mid-1980s, the DENI was commanded by a major and headquartered in Ancón near Panama City. The overall strength of this organization and location of its agents were not publicized; however, it was generally assumed that Panama City, Colón, and David were its main areas of activity.
The Police Forces also included the Traffic Police (Dirección Nacional de Tránsito Terrestre), which was founded as a separate entity in 1969. Headquartered in Panama City, the Traffic Police regulated and controlled traffic throughout the country. Units were stationed in the cities and suburbs as well as on the back roads and highways, including the Pan-American Highway. In performing its countrywide duties, the Traffic Police coordinated with other FDP personnel in the posts and stations of eleven of the twelve military zones; coordination was not possible in the Twelfth Military Zone, located in the Comarca de San Blas, because of the lack of roads. Responsibilities of the Traffic Police included issuing, renewing, and revoking drivers' licenses and vehicle registrations; investigating accidents and infractions of the vehicle laws; inspecting vehicles for safety hazards; and developing training programs for safe driving. In the late 1980s, the force was commanded by a major.
The Police Forces also included small police units called the Tourism Police (Policía de Turismo) and Community Police (Policía Comunitaria), both commanded by lieutenants. The Immigration Department and the First Public Order Company (Doberman) first came under the control of the Police Forces in 1983. The Immigration Department was staffed by civilians, but was fully integrated into the FDP; its head reported directly to the FDP commander. The First Public Order Company, commanded by a captain, was charged with riot control and was the primary instrument used for this purpose in the 1980s.
Data as of December 1987
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