Does Panama Have an Army?

Panama is a haven for locals and expats alike. It’s also one of the best places that you can stay in, so you might wonder who enforce the law in the country. With so many questionable elements like cartels and gangs from other countries, one question remains. Does Panama have a military that can protect it from malicious elements?

Panama is the second country in Latin America to abolish a standing army. Like Costa Rica, they don’t have an army that is there to perform an invasion. In place of an Army, they have a para-military service that handles domestic security.

Even if Panama has no military forces, they’re no pushovers. Here’s everything you need to know about Panama’s forces work. There’s some fascinating history behind it that we’re sure you’d love.

Does Panama Have an Army?

Does Panama have an army? The short answer is no, Panama does not have an Army per se, being one of the countries with no standing army. Among the most notable nations with no standing army other than Panama include:

  • Costa Rica
  • Iceland
  • The Vatican
  • Monaco
  • Mauritius

Panama is only the second Latin American country to denounce a standing army. Everything that handles the internal security of the country comes from its four service branches. They take care of the entire peace and security efforts for the country, which is crucial.

Panama is smack in the middle of the Latin American countries, connecting North and South America by land. They can expect that many lawless people will try to take advantage of this and transport effects via land routes. Having a superior national security force can push away these potential cartel people.

Before we go deeper into their peacekeeping force, we need to ask. Why did Panama cease to have a standing army? The United States has a lot to do with it.

Understanding the History of Panama’s Armed Forces

To understand why Panama doesn’t have a standing army, we need to go back in its history. Panama gained its first army regiment in 1903. A branch of the then Colombian army defected to the pro-independent faction of Panama. When Panama seceded, the members of this brigade became the first members of the “Panamanian army.”

During this time, however, the United States convinced the new Panama government not to proceed. Instead, they built up the Panamanian National Police – being the only armed force in Panama.

By the late 1930s, however, the country started to gather people with military backgrounds around Latin America. This process went faster forward because of José Remón in 1947.

At the time, Remón was the Police commandant and a graduate of the Mexican Military Academy. He eventually became the President of Panama in 1953 and the progenitor of militarism in the country. This militaristic view of the world will create “Torrijismo” at a later time.

Before running for president, Remón will oversee two coup d’etat against two Presidents before him. Once he won the 1952 elections in Panama, he organized the National Police to create a military unit. These became the Guardia Nacional de Panamá, becoming the de facto military power of the country.

By 1968, Major Boris Martinez, Major Omar Torrijos, and other majors of the National Guard led another coup. This time, it was against then-president Arnulfo Arias, who tried to disperse senior members of the military. At the time, they converted the Guardia Nacional into a straight-up army.

Dissolution of Panama’s Army

Military soldiers standing on top of tanks at sunrise

During the process of converting the Guardia Nacional, the revolutionary leaders promoted themselves. The eventual result of this is Torrijos pushing Martinez out of the way. He went up the ranks to brigadier general and became the leader of Panama.

Torrijos will die in a plane crash in 1981 and will have another two successors until the rise of Manuel Noriega. Noriega consolidates all the military power Panama has into the Fuerzas de Defensa de Panamá. He also created the Panama Defense Force Military Intelligence Section, which was his secret police.

Noriega used his military power to exert political control. He used them to intimidate the opposition and become the muscle to his aggressive handling of the military. During his early years, Noriega was a US Intelligence asset and helped exert power in Central America. By the time he went into power in the 80s, his relationship with the United States deteriorated.

Then-president Ronald Reagan tried to negotiate with General Noriega to step down from power. After a series of mishaps, including the May 1989 election in Panama declared null and void, the United States urged Noriega to honor the elections.

By October 1989, Noriega stopped a coup attempt against him by the Defense Force. By December 15, Panama declared war against the US. During the next few days, the Defense Force opened fire and shot US Marines and detailed a US Naval officer.

By December 18, then-President George H.W. Bush ordered Operation: Just Cause. The operation was an invasion plan of Panama, for execution on December 20 at 0100 hours.

The operation was a success, deposing Noriega and putting President Guillermo Endara into power. The entire operation received condemnation from Panamanian politicians and the international community. It resulted in Endara abolishing the Panama Defense Forces.

Endara converted the military into the Panamanian Public Forces on February 10, 1990. As a safeguard, the Panama Legislative Assembly added amendments in their constitution. The Amendment prohibits the creation of a standing military force. The amendment, however, allows the temporary assembly of an army to repel any “external aggression.”

From this point, Panama ceased to have an official professional army. Instead, the government assigned their defense to a para-military presence almost equal to a standing army.

Panama will also experience a dissolution and merging of many of its branches in the military.

The Panama Public Force

military special force unit with tactical rifle and night vision equipment

The Panama Public Force has four branches that act as the para-military organization of the country. Their job is to protect the country from domestic threats, and handle public security. These branches are:

  • National Border Service
  • National Aeronaval Service
  • Panamanian National Police
  • Institutional Protection Service

Each force has its role within Panama’s public safety and security. They handle different facets of national security and have different parts to fill.

The budget of the PPF stands at around $481 Million, at most used for training purposes. A good chunk of the budget goes into expanding and looking for recruits.

Their equipment is far less than the usual army too. Most of their “Air Force” handles utility and transport receiving older model planes from other countries. Their Navy is the same, using only patrol boats to manage the borders of Panama. Their entire Navy comes from the older patrol boats that the US gave to them.

Anyone that is part of the Panama Public Force can also get benefit from graduating with honors. Officers who take up the proper schooling and graduate with a Bachelors’ degree. They receive superior rankings, becoming Second Lieutenant straight out of the academy.

Officers in the PPF also go through an exchange program with other Latin American countries. These allow them to learn more modern fighting techniques, tactics, and the like from other nations’ police academies.

National Border Service (SENAFRONT)

Panama’s National Border Service is the permanent police force of the country. Their official name is the Servicio Nacional De Fronteras or SENAFRONT. Their job is to protect Panama’s land borders. Much like a military unit, they preserve the sovereignty of Panama, serving its government and people.

SENAFRONT also handles the protection of its citizen’s rights of everyone within the border and maintaining public order. They are also the people who will converge and repel any potential foreign invasion. This is to ensure that the sovereign jurisdiction of Panama is under proper care.

The SENAFRONT has around 4,000 members and counting. They have 8 divisions at the moment. These divisions are:

  • Caribbean Battalion
  • Central Battalion
  • Pacific Battalion
  • Fluvial Battalion
  • Battalion General José De Fabregas
  • Eastern Battalion
  • Western Battalion
  • Panama Special Forces

Each unit has a specific function. The Eastern Battalion, for example, handles the border with Colombia. The Western Battalion handles the border with Costa Rica, while the Special Forces support every other unit.

Six out of the 8 battalions handle the west side of the border. This is at most due to a more active land activity within the Costa Rica border.

The Special Forces also handles has companies for reconnaissance and anti-narcotics, jungle ops, and assault and infiltration.

National Aeronaval Service of Panama (SENAN)

The National Aeronaval Service of Panama acts both as Panama’s Navy, Coast Guard, and Air Force. Their full name is the Servicio Nacional Aeronaval de Panama or SENAN. They handle both the maritime jurisdiction and the airspace of Panama.

The SENAN comes from the merger of two branches of Panama’s forces. It came from the National Maritime Service and the National Air Service of Panama. Their merger came after the Decree-Law No. 7 of Aug 2008.

The primary office handling the SENAN is the Public Security Ministry of Panama. Their highest ranking position is the Commissioner-General.

The size of SENAN is small compared to the Air and Naval branches of other similar-sized governments. Their human resources should be as much as 2500 personnel, with around 20 boats, and 15 aircraft.

There are 4 primary groups within SENAN itself. They are the Air Group, Naval Group, Aircraft Infantry, and Air Command. They fill-in different roles within the National Aeronaval Service, with their own missions and objectives.

National Police of Panama

The National Police of Panama is the primary armed body that handles civilian law and order in Panama. They maintain the public order and ensures nationwide cooperation and the search for lawless elements. They are the direct subordinates of the president through the Ministry of Public security since 2010.

The Panamanian National Police uses a paramilitary structure, following ranks similar to police in the US. They are present in almost any district, as long the people need them. Everything in Panama divides into Zonas Policiales (Police Zones) within every major city and district.

The National Police of Panama acts like any country who uphold their law. They handle disputes over land and property and can arrest any malicious wrongdoer. They also apprehend civilians who break the many laws of Panama.

The main challenges of the National Police include handling drug trafficking within its jurisdiction. They also handle money laundering, firearms trafficking, and counterfeiting goods within the general population. There are also criminal organizations that operate at a global level.

The National Police has the most significant population across different branches. There is around 22,000 active personnel for this branch. This active personnel is divided into 18 companies that handle most of national security.

Institutional Protection Service (IPS)

The Institutional Protection Service is the equivalent of the United States Secret Service. They’re the ones who handle the security of the President, other national leaders, and their families.

There’s not much information about the Secret Service due to their limited function. They have a few honorary branches, however.

For example, the IPS has a Pikemen and Musketeers’ Company and Cavalry Squad that wears period-accurate uniforms from the 16th century up to well down into the sentence.

They also have the Honorable Artillery Company, one of the oldest military units in the Panama Secret Police.

Conclusion

Four special forces black unit soldiers and helicopter

Panama does not have an army, but it does not need it. Much of the modern history of Panama stems from using the military as a type of political tool for its past presidents. By not having a standing army at the beck and call of the president, Panama ensures itself of peace.

Even without a standing army, the country has a para-military system that is capable enough to protect its sovereignty. Though small, they have people ready to protect and serve the motherland. Panama, as a sovereign government, has nothing to gain from keeping an army.

Panama’s protection lies in the hands of the people who care for it. Its Public Forces handle everything, putting more funding for more vital national services. Most of the forces will be there and give everything they got to protect everyone in Panama.

What else would you like to know about Panama’s army? We’re sure the colorful military history of Panama got you thinking.

Matt Romero

I’m Matthew Romero, one of the guys behind PanamaLifeInsider.com I am incredibly passionate about Panama, its beautiful territory, and all the incredible opportunities which offer to people coming here from all over the world both either visiting and settling. In this blog, I decided to share my passion with you!

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