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Panama Defense Forces (PDF)
(Fuerzas de Defensa de Panama FDP)

>Panama was ruled during most of the 1980s by a military dictatorship under General Manuel Antonio Noriega, the Commander of the Panama Defense Forces (PDF). Under the Noriega dictatorship, Panama's security and police institutions both fell under the PDF, which was composed of Army, Navy, Air Force, and police components consisting of approximately 15,000 members, all responsible to the PDF Commander. On the civilian side, the PDF wielded its control in part through the governing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Although the legislature was disbanded in September 1989, the PRD continued to play an important role because its members filled most key positions in the Government.

General Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno, the ambitious former head of military intelligence in Panama, assumed control of the National Guard in 1983 and launched a successful effort to consolidate his power. He oversaw the transformation of the National Guard from a small paramilitary organization into the much larger and more capable FDP, ostensibly capable of defending the expanded national territory (now including the former Canal Zone) and of joining the United States in defending the Panama Canal.

Because of the strong United States vested interest in the security of the canal, this transformation was accomplished with extensive United States training, equipment, and financial assistance. Ironically, however, the growing size and strength of the FDP, which were fostered in accordance with perceived United States strategic interests, led to a situation that the United States increasingly regarded as inimical to its own interests as well as those of the Panamanian people. The FDP, which traditionally had exhibited strong institutional cohesiveness and loyalty to its commander, increasingly became a formidable power base for enhancing and institutionalizing political control by the FDP commander.

On September 29, 1983, a new law Law 20 created the FDP as the successor institution to the National Guard. The law simultaneously repealed all previous legislation relating to the organization, mission, and functions of the Panamanian armed forces, including Law 44 of December 23, 1953, and Law 50 of November 30, 1958. Opposition parties strongly criticized the new law, claiming that it "implies the militarization of national life, converts Panama into a police state, makes the members of the armed forces privileged citizens, and gives the commander of the National Guard authoritarian and totalitarian power." However, the Defense Forces' commander in chief, General Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno, claimed that the change in the law was necessary in order to confront the deteriorating security situation in Central America and to prepare the military for its growing role in defending the Panama Canal.

The functions of the FDP stated in the organic law were very broad, giving it an increasing role and bringing other organizations under its control. Major functions included protecting the life and property of Panamanians and foreigners living in Panama; cooperating with civilian authorities to guarantee individual rights.

During public demonstrations, common PDF tactics included the use of birdshot, rubber truncheons, water cannons using water laced with acid, and tear gas. After both the 07 May 1989 elections and the October 3 rebellion, many Panamanians reported waves of deaths, arrests, detentions, and torture by members of the PDF or paramilitary groups under their control. Victims commonly reported that they were robbed, held in extended solitary confinement, often in cells too small to permit standing up or lying down and filthy with human excrement, and denied the opportunity to bathe. They were frequently stripped naked and exposed alternately to cold and heat, or deprived of food, sleep, and medical treatment.

Harassment -- including attacks on demonstrators by brutal paramilitary squads and random detentions -- was used to disrupt protests or even peaceful assemblies. In 1988 the PDF formed "dignity battalions" paramilitary groups of civilians, PDF members, unemployed persons, released criminals, and government employees charged with political or publicity functions. The dignity battalions received small arms and other military training from the PDF. In 1989 the PDF increasingly used these groups to harass political opponents and public demonstrators and to commit other human rights abuses. For example, dignity battalions participated in the attack against opposition political candidates at the Santa Ana Plaza on May 10, where at least one opposition supporter died and many people including an opposition candidate for vice president were bloodied and injured in events covered by the world media. The PDF also responded to peaceful protests with the use of tear gas, baton charges, birdshot, and water cannons using water mixed with acid.

After the 03 October 1989 military uprising, Noriega and his loyalists reportedly killed as many as 90 PDF personnel and arrested or dismissed several hundred others for their alleged involvement in the rebellion. There were reports that rebel soldiers who led the effort to oust General Noriega were alive when they laid down their arms. The Noriega regime later announced that 10 of them had been killed in the fighting. The new Attorney General announced that his office's investigation had found evidence that Major Giroldi Vera, who led the coup attempt, had been shot to death in jail the day after he was placed in detention. There was a report that four rebel military personnel were stuffed alive into body bags and placed in freezing morgue lockers until they died of suffocation or cold. In the wake of the October 3 military insurrection, reported estimates of PDF personnel arrested and incarcerated varied from 200 to 600.

One of the Endara Government's first acts was to disband the PDF and replace it with a new organization, the Panamanian Public Force (FPP), under direct civilian authority. Although the precise structure and responsibilities of the FPP were still being worked out in early 1990, the Panamanian Government indicated that the FPP would be a national police organization, with a national air service and a national maritime service established as separate entities.

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Page last modified: 10-06-2017 18:56:58 ZULU