Panama - Military Personnel

Panama's standing army was abolished after the 1989 US invasion that ousted General Manuel Noriega, leaving security in the hands of an 18,000-strong police force. Short on equipment and training, the force has been charged with maintaining sovereignty against incursions by Colombian armed groups in the Darien Gap frontier region.

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 Rio 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 Instruccion MilitaróCIM) at Fort Cimarron. 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.

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 high-level 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.

Until the 1950s, systematic training had been at best sporadic and at worst nonexistent. During the construction of the canal, United States instructors in police methods were frequently hired, but none stayed more than a few months, and the turnover hurt the already inefficient police force. In 1917 Albert R. Lamb was hired as an instructor for the National Police, and within two years he had been promoted to the post of inspector general. Even after a Panamanian was named commander in 1924, Lamb remained as an inspector and continued to exert an important influence on the police. He was credited with having created a relatively efficient force, but discipline, training, and efficiency declined after he left in 1927.

It must be apparent that these World Bank / IISS Budget and Personnel number are incoherent. The budget takes at face value the Panamanian post-Noriega decision to abolish its military forces, while the personnel figures do not The result is the asertion of a cost free military establishment of no small size.

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