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Figure 12. Ranks and Insignia of the Panama Defense Forces, 1987

Figure 13. Selected Unit Insignia of the Panama Defense Forces, 1987


Service in the FDP and its predecessor organizations had been voluntary since Panama gained its independence, but a law provided for conscription if necessary. If there were a perceived threat to national sovereignty, the Defense Forces were charged with managing conscription. Naturalized citizens were exempted from participation in cases where they would have to fight against their country of origin. (As of the mid-1980s, however, no emergency since independence had necessitated activation of the law.)

Government officials reported through the years that there had always been more recruits for the Defense Forces than available spaces. Even the possibility of increased manning levels to meet additional requirements under the Panama Canal treaties did not seem to exhaust the pool of recruits. In the mid-1980s, Panamanians aspiring to military service generally reported to Omar Torrijos Military Base at Río Hato, where they took a series of physical and mental examinations. Those accepted were issued uniforms and received some basic training before being sent to the Military Training Center (Centro de Instrucción Militar--CIM) at Fort Cimarrón. There was no set schedule for basic training courses, but they occurred two to three times each year. All Panamanians who enjoyed ". . . their civilian and political rights, who have not been sentenced for crimes against property, or sanctioned by the judicial branch with a sentence depriving them of freedom for committing a crime against the public administration . . ." could apply for admission to the Defense Forces.

The commander in chief made all promotions and used the following criteria to determine whether a promotion was merited: "1) Verification of service rendered in the lower rank and proof of seniority, 2) Exhibition of optimal physical condition . . ., 3) Demonstration of a positive moral attitude . . ., and 4) Exhibition of intellectual attitude and competence . . . . " If a member of the Defense Forces were found guilty of insubordination or some other violation of military discipline, the right to promotion could be suspended for up to three years. In October 1985, Noriega promoted the largest number of officers and enlisted personnel ever promoted at one time in the history of the armed forces (some 1,200). This occurred as a result of both the rapid expansion of the Defense Forces and the anticipated need for more senior officers and enlisted men as the year 2000 approached. Noriega's action further altered the rank structure by creating more highlevel officer billets and strengthened his position within the Defense Forces.

Statistics were not maintained on the ethnic and racial backgrounds of Defense Forces personnel, but there was no apparent discrimination. In fact, since the National Police and its successor institutions had been among the few bureaucratic organizations in Panama not to discriminate on the basis of race, many black Panamanians found their way into military service. Enlisted personnel historically came mostly from the urban transit area, since the National Police served primarily as policemen in that area. After the creation of new infantry units during the 1960s and 1970s, there has been some indication that recruitment shifted to rural areas. Most officers had traditionally come from the urban lower-middle class, but increasing numbers were drawn from the rural middle and lower classes in the 1950s and 1960s.

Although there had always been a few women in the Panamanian armed forces, their numbers greatly increased in the 1980s. Part of this increase resulted from the creation of the FDP in 1983, when women in bureaucracies such as the Immigration Department were brought under the armed forces. However, it was also a reflection of changing policy and the military five-year plan implemented in the early 1980s. This plan called for the eventual creation of a separate administrative office for the women's component of the armed forces known as the Female Force (Fuerza Feminina). As of the mid-1980s, there were 1,824 women on active duty. In 1986, the School for Women's Training (Escuela de Formación Feminina) was established with a female captain as its commander. The first graduating class of twenty had received twelve weeks of instruction in a variety of military subjects.

Article 24 of the September 1983 Law 20 on the Defense Forces of the Republic of Panama states that the professional classification of military ranks within the FDP will be as follows: "1) general of the forces, 2) corps general, 3) division general, 4) brigadier general, 5) colonel, 6) lieutenant colonel, 7) major, 8) captain, 9) lieutenant, 10) second lieutenant, 11) first sergeant, 12) second sergeant, 13) first corporal, 14) second corporal, 15) agent, 16) aid, and 17) orderly. Posts in the military ranks mentioned above will be filled in accordance with institutional needs." The commander in chief is traditionally the only active-duty officer to hold the rank of general. The rank of general came into use in the mid-1960s with Vallaríno. Previously, colonel was the highest rank except for Remón's posthumous promotion to general, approved by the National Assembly after his assassination. In the late 1980s, the FDP's commander, General Noriega, held the four-star general rank (see fig. 12).

The most common uniforms in the mid-1980s were either green fatigue or khaki-colored short-sleeved shirts and trousers. Officers sometimes wore short-sleeved khaki shirts with dark green trousers or various (white or dark green) dress uniforms. Both the fatigue uniforms and khaki uniforms also had long-sleeved versions. Headgear varied, including a variety of helmets or helmet liners, berets of various colors, the stiff-sided visored fatigue cap, and the visored felt garrison caps similar to those worn by United States Army officers. Field-grade officers and the one general officer wore gold braid on their visored caps. Combat boots were the most common footwear, but officers frequently wore low-quarter shoes. Officer rank insignia consisted of gold bars or stars. The noncommissioned officer (NCO) ranks were designated by chevrons similar to those worn by some NCOs in the United States Army. Distinctive unit shoulder patches were worn by all ranks on the right shoulder of their uniforms (see fig. 13). On the left shoulder, all ranks wore the familiar blue, white, and red shield of the FDP showing crossed rifles bisected by an upright saber.

Data as of December 1987

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