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New Trouble in Panama

Divorcing the Dictator: America’s Bungled Affair with Noriega

by Frederick Kempe
Putnam, 469 pp., $24.95

CALL TO THE CITIZENRY” was the headline over the box on the front page of La Estrella de Panamá, one of Panama’s five daily newspapers, on March 4. The statement urged Panamanians

to show the necessary wisdom in the face of the recent deeds that have caused alarm throughout society. Certain understandable passions were stirred up immediately after the events of December 20, but the moment has come for ALL Panamanians to put aside their differences and undertake the Reconstruction and Reconciliation that are imperative if the country is truly to set out on the democratic paths of peace and social justice….

Two days earlier, a man in a black Nissan had pulled up in front of a bar named “My Place” and hurled a grenade through its window. According to an eyewitness, the man had shouted “Viva Noriega” as he did so. The bar was a favorite hangout of US soldiers and it was packed on the night of the attack. Sixteen Americans and fourteen Panamanians were wounded; one of the Americans later died.

A few days later, a caller to the local Reuters office said the attack had been carried out by the Movement of December 20. M-20, as it is commonly known, is a shadowy group, presumably made up of former members of Manuel Noriega’s Dignity Battalions. No one knew how many people belonged to the organization or who controlled it, but, one way or another, M-20 had Panama City on edge. Hotels, restaurants, and banks were receiving bomb threats, and on the walls of downtown buildings graffiti were appearing with such slogans as “Assassin Bush” and “Yankee Go Home.”

Visitors to Panama City are now strongly urged by local residents to avoid the downtown area, a grim district of sagging tenements and malodorous streets. One hears warnings like this throughout Latin America, but in Panama they are all the more persuasive since Noriega, during his last months in power, had distributed tens of thousands of AK-47s to his supporters, and many of the weapons are still unaccounted for.

During the invasion, moreover, soldiers loyal to the general opened the nation’s prisons, freeing hundreds of criminals. Most are still at large, and the capital has been suffering from an unprecedented crime wave. Since the invasion the police in this country of 2.3 million people have recorded an average of thirty murders per month—six times the pre-invasion rate. Armed robbers have been breaking into houses by day and holding up expensive restaurants at night. One evening, a friend suggested dinner at a Swiss restaurant, assuring me it would be safe. “It was held up recently, so the robbers won’t be back for a while,” she explained.

Much of the current violence in Panama is connected to drugs. Noriega is gone, but Panama continues to serve as a transshipment point for US-bound cocaine. Traditionally, Colombian traffickers have dominated the trade, but now the Panamanians, with their newly acquired weapons, are fighting for their share. Execution-style killings have become increasingly common in Panama City; bodies appear daily on the streets of the city.

In response, the police have mounted a series of raids in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. During one raid in early March, a battalion of American soldiers in full battle dress cordoned off a squalid, drug-infested patch of down-town Panama City. Hundreds of Panamanian police invaded the neighborhood’s housing projects and carried out room-to-room searches for drugs and weapons. Suspects were handcuffed, forced into waiting buses, and transported to an outdoor holding pen. In all, more than seven hundred people were arrested. Unfortunately, word of the raid had leaked out well in advance, and the dealers who were most wanted had all managed to escape. The drug trade continued.

One night during my stay in Panama, I heard on a local TV channel that the country was expecting an outbreak of dengue fever, a horribly debilitating disease spread by mosquitoes. Noriega had let the country’s insect-spraying programs lapse, and Panama’s mosquito population was now growing rapidly. To make matters worse, Panama’s sanitation workers were on strike, and the streets of Panama City—fetid in the best of times—were piled high with trash, hillocks of garbage turning moldy in the tropical sun. It was certainly not a good time to get sick, for the nation’s health-care system was in a state of collapse, with hospitals low on everything from gauze pads to stomach pumps.

Politically, too, Panama seemed to be coming apart. One morning several hundred people who’d been left homeless by the invasion blocked traffic on the Bridge of the Americas, the only bridge across the Panama Canal. Land-hungry squatters, called precaristas—the precarious ones—invaded a number of vacant estates on the outskirts of town. In Colón, Panama’s second largest city, a group calling itself the Permanent Committee of Hunger, Desperation, and Hope held a noisy demonstration demanding jobs and housing. And, in the countryside, authorities were reporting the first signs of pro-Noriega guerrilla activity.

For US officials, all this is deeply distressing. Most Panamianians considered Noriega a brutal and corrupt dictator and according to several polls more than 90 percent of them approved of the invasion of December 20 which led to his downfall. But these resulting good feelings could quickly evaporate, and the United States has been making extensive efforts to shore up Panama’s new government. “Operation Just Cause” has been followed by “Operation Promote Liberty,” America’s largest effort at “nation building” since the Vietnam War. Dozens of US specialists have arrived, including accountants, city planners, postal workers, veterinarians, firemen, agronomists, pharmacists, even insurance underwriters. Legal experts are helping to rebuild the nation’s judicial system; economists are helping to draw up a national budget and engineers to repair roadways and bridges.

No task, though, has received as much attention as establishing the new Public Force (PF), the successor to Noriega’s Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF). A bloated institution dedicated to smuggling, drug trafficking, and shaking down the Panamanian people, the PDF had a hand in virtually every activity of Panamanian society. Its members directly or indirectly controlled the immigration service, passport office, ports, prisons, airports, hotels, banks, gambling casinos, and much else. The invasion removed not only Noriega but also the PDF. In its place, the Endara government is trying to establish a smaller, and more professional, civilian force. US military officers are working in police headquarters and hundreds of US military police have been assigned to Panama’s police precincts to keep an eye on the new patrolmen.

Major problems have emerged, however. Virtually all the members of the new force worked previously in the old one, and, to the dismay of many Panamanians, they are back at their familiar posts. Bumper stickers have appeared on cars proclaiming “Police Yes, Army No.” Radio talk shows are full of angry complaints about the new force, and newspaper editorials regularly attack the government for its indecisiveness. Even the National Civic Crusade, the broad coalition that led the opposition to Noriega, has expressed alarm about the PDF’s possible return.

Panama, President Endara recently said, is undergoing the “worst crisis in its history”—worse, even, than under Noriega. Is the old cycle of violence starting anew?


The animated crowd that had gathered outside the Legislative Assembly building watched as a stream of black cars passed through its gates. It was March 1, the Assembly’s opening day, and, for the first time in many years, the legislature was serving as something more than a rubber stamp for the military. Inside, the hall was packed with Cabinet ministers, legislators, and other citizens who had resisted the political grotesqueries of the Noriega era. After a series of windy speeches, a side door opened and there, suddenly, was President Endara. As he stepped to the podium, the crowd rose to its feet and cheered. Although the president had been in office more than two months, the circumstances of his swearing-in—on a US military base in the midst of the invasion—had denied Panama a public inauguration, and this occasion was as close to one as the country would get. In his address, Endara extolled the return of democracy to Panama, warmly thanking President Bush. Mostly, though, he concentrated on the crisis at hand. Children were hungry, housing was scarce, roads were rutted, schools were crumbling. He called for the creation of a new, more just Panama. “We will be truly free when each Panamanian has an equal opportunity to develop himself fully as a human being,” Endara said. “That is the aspiration of the people that elected us, and that is the goal of my government.”

Again, the audience rose; but, unexpectedly, the president raised his hand and signaled for the crowd to be silent. He went on to announce that he was embarking on a fast to show his sympathy with Panama’s poor. He would be moving his office into the metropolitan cathedral and would remain there for the length of the fast. When Endara finished, the applause resumed, but it was much more tentative this time as people tried to absorb the prospect of their portly president trying to act like Mahatma Gandhi.

When I visited the cathedral that night, I found the president in the right transept, his 250 pounds squeezed into a wicker rocking chair. About thirty people milled about, but the president appeared to have nothing else to do, and he invited me to take a seat. With a cherubic smile, Endara explained why he had undertaken his unusual course of action. “I saw that Lent was coming, and as a religious person I know that Lent is a time for fasting—for thinking of your brothers,” he said, speaking slowly in English. Given the country’s desperate plight, he went on, he felt it wasn’t right to stay in the presidential palace. “I have an excellent bed there—very soft,” he said. “I have an excellent cook—and I confess I like to eat. But as the president of Panama I cannot continue along these lines. I have to do something to show solidarity with the pain and suffering of my people.”

It would be wrong, Endara said, to speculate that his fast was directed at Washington. President Bush had proposed sending Panama $500 million in aid, but Congress was dawdling, and, until it acted, Endara’s government was effectively broke. Nevertheless, the president said, “I don’t want this interpreted as a hunger strike against the United States.” President Bush, he added, “has been very generous with Panama.” But what about the report in that morning’s papers that Congress was thinking of cutting the President’s request? “What report?” Endara asked.

The conversation turned to the new police force. That morning, the Civic Crusade had taken out a full-page newspaper advertisement criticizing the government’s handling of the PF. The ad had caused a stir. The Civic Crusade, made up of two hundred business, civic, and professional groups, had organized the large, noisy street demonstrations that, beginning in 1987, did much to isolate Noriega. The crusaders had been relentlessly attacked by the PDF, suffering beatings, tear-gassings, and shootings. Now, for the first time, it was publicly criticizing the government. What was the president’s reaction? Endara looked blank. “What ad?” he asked. He hadn’t read that part of the paper, either. When I handed him a copy, Endara glanced at it quickly. “They haven’t discussed this with me,” he said, sounding unconcerned.

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