Cablegate: Panama: "Militarization" Debate Re-Surfaces


DE RUEHZP #0446/01 1511809
R 301809Z MAY 08

C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 000446


E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/27/2018

Classified By: POLCOUNS Brian R. Naranjo. Reasons: 1.4 (B) and (D).


1. (C) Panama's ever-smoldering "militarization" debate
reignited over the past couple of weeks as Panamanian opinion
shapers and leaders -- largely associated with the
opposition, at least in opinion -- voiced their concerns that
the GOP might be undertaking what they perceived as an
ill-advised effort to rebuild Panama's military. These
concerns emerged in the wake of a perceived convergence of

(a) President Martin Torrijos' recent "secretive" visit to
Washington (May 5-7);
(b) Reporting on SECDEF Gates' May 6 letter (reported in a
defense trade journal and echoed in Panama's media) equating
Panama's civilian public forces (i.e., the Panamanian
National Police (PNP) and other civilian security forces)
with a military; and
(c) the appointment on May 13 in an acting capacity of a
former military officer and currently uniformed member of the
PNP as Director General.

This debate is taking place in the midst of Panama's
tumultuous primary election season and as the Torrijos
Administration is taking hits for increases in crime and
economic uncertainty. First VP and FM Samuel Lewis told
Ambassador on May 13 that he was unconcerned by the
anti-militarization critique; "People want security. Nobody
is really following this militarization debate, except for a
few crazies like Bobby Eisenmann," sentiments that were
subsequently echoed by Minister of Government and Justice
Daniel Delgado. End Summary.

--------------------------------------------- ---------
Torrijos' "Secret" Washington Agenda Stirs Speculation
--------------------------------------------- ---------

2. (C) Even before Torrijos departed for his May 5-7 visit to
Washington, media outlets speculated as to the "real" purpose
for Torrijos' visit. Asserting that the U.S.-Panamanian
Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) was unlikely to advance
towards U.S. ratification in the coming months, Panamanian
media sought to divine the true reason for the trip. One
news story, drawing on conversations with ostensible
cognoscenti, threw out the following as possible objectives
for Torrijos' visit: to re-launch talks to establish a
multi-national counternarcotics center; to establish at the
former Howard Air Force Base a forward-operating location
(FOL) to be ready once the FOL in Manta, Ecuador closed; and
to seek radars to help Panama confront the threat posed by
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Panama's
Darien Province. A last-minute meeting between Torrijos and
SECDEF fed the media speculation. The Torrijos
Administration's unwillingness to divulge anything more than
the fact of a meeting only served to heighten suspicion in
the media - a media proud of its role in opposing the
military dictatorship.

--------------------------------------------- --
Gates: A military in every way, if not in name
--------------------------------------------- --

3. (U) Panama's civilian public forces are "a military in
every way, but not in name," Panamanian media widely reported
(May 14-23), echoing a story in the U.S. defense trade
publication "Inside Defense" that cites a May 6 letter from
SECDEF to the House Armed Services Committee. According to
the media reporting, SECDEF's letter further described
Panama's public forces as functioning in a way consistent
with national military forces worldwide. The media also
segued seamlessly to quoting a May 8 Pentagon briefing in
which SECDEF appeared to compare Panama's public forces to
Pakistan's frontier police and noted that Pakistan indeed had
an army and was currently ruled by a military dictatorship.

A uniformed man to lead the National Police

4. (C) Torrijos appointed former Panamanian Defense Forces
(PDF) military officer and currently uniformed Panamanian
National Police (PNP) Commissioner (O-6 equivalent) Jaime
Ruiz as acting Director General. Ruiz was named Sub-Director
in 2007. News reports of Ruiz's appointment almost always
mentioned his early training at a military academy in
Guatemala, during which time Panama was ruled by a military
dictatorship. While it specifies that the head of the PNP
must be civilian, some assert that Panamanian law is silent
as to whether an "acting" Director General may be a uniformed
officer. For example, Patriotic Union (UP) party VP Jose
Raul Mulino, who authored constitutional reforms and
legislation in the Endara Administration, to disband the PDF
and ensure that the PNP would have strong civilian
leadership, characterized the Torrijos Administration's
sleight of hand as "fully against the spirit and letter of
the law." The Torrijos Administration dismissed this
assertion, echoed in a number of opinion articles.

A Sampling of Editorial Commentary

5. (SBU) A sampling of editorial commentary taken solely
from the print media included the following:

-- "The Americans never felt comfortable about Panama's
decision to eliminate the army and the military forces." --
Ebrahim Asvat, Chairman of El Siglo (widely-read daily
tabloid newspaper);

-- "Secretary Gates' statements have surprised the gullible
and those who lack malice" in Panama. Also, "those who have
been observing the military evolution that has gone from
simple policemen to soldiers with a military vocation, can
see that what (Gates) expressed confirms a return to
militarism." The appointment of Jaime Ruiz as head of the
PNP "is not an allergic reaction against career soldiers,"
but against a system that "caused the Republic so much
torment, insecurity, and loss of credibility. The Panamanian
people are not afraid of career soldiers, they are afraid of
the system that leads toward militarization." -- Carlos Ivan
Zuniga, attorney and former Rector of the University of
Panama, La Prensa opinion article;

-- "...since Secretary Gates is a product of the gringo
intelligence sector - yes intelligence! - he needs to be told
(as the Democrat congressman did) that Panama, is by decision
of all its people and Constitutional mandate - a neutral and
demilitarized country." Also, in criticizing the ruling PRD
party, "...the pro-gorilla (gorilla: Panamanian term used for
military officers) stance emerges together with the stupid
complicity of the gringos who, through US Defense Secretary
Robert Gates, confess their participation in the
remilitarization with statements that show, to say the least,
mental retardation." -- I. Roberto Eisenmann, Jr., former
president of La Prensa (widely circulated, pro-business
daily), La Prensa opinion article;

-- Torrijos returned to Panama "armed with courage" following
his visit to Washington and receiving support from Gates for
"Panama's remilitarization." -- Miguel Antonio Bernal, Human
Rights activist and attorney, commentary entitled "Martin,
the Militarist" in El Panama America (left of center

Sentiments similar to those expressed in these print media
excerpts were also expressed in radio and television talk
shows and other commentary.

--------------------------------------------- -------
Lewis, Delgado Downplay Anti-Militarization Critique
--------------------------------------------- --------

6. (C) "People want security. Nobody is really following
this militarization debate, except for a few crazies like
Bobby Eisenmann," First VP and FM Samuel Lewis told
Ambassador on May 13. Continuing, Lewis downplayed the
political impact that the anti-militarization critique of the
Torrijos Administration's recent security-related activities.

7. (C) Minister of Government and Justice Daniel Delgado
echoed these comments during a recent visit by the Deputy
Commander of the US Southrn Command. In addition to
discussing a number of GOP initiatives that have caused
concern about remilitarization, such as the creation of a new
Aero-Naval Service and Frontier Police, the restructuring of
the PPF and the creation of a new MOGJ Vice Minister for
Public Safety, Delgado - a former Major in the PDF himself -
addressed the recent remilitarization media criticism. He
characterized it as criticism from a small minority, and said
that he believed that the majority of Panamanians wanted a
more secure country and would trust the government to take
the appropriate steps to make it so.


8. (C) The implied and often stated undercurrent of the
anti-militarization camp is that there is a stealth project
to remilitarize Panama being carried out by the U.S. and
their allies in the PRD. Judging by press reports, SECDEF's
comments were made within the context of advocating for
Panama's inclusion in the 1206 military assistance program.
The nuance that Panama's civilian public forces carried out
the duties and responsibilities normally associated with a
military and that it was in the U.S. interest to work closely
with these civilian authorities was lost on Panamanian
observers and commentators. The aforementioned events in
both Panama and Washington, upon which opinion leaders have
shaped their anti-militarization views, come in the wake of:
(a) the creation of a stand-alone Frontier Police; (b) the
possible fusion of the National Maritime Service (SMN) and
the National Air Service (SAN) into a new Aero-Naval Service;
and (c) the disbandment of the Technical Judicial Police
(PTJ) and the move of its personnel and functions to the new
Judicial Investigative Directorate (DIJ) under the Minister
of Government and Justice. The appointment of a uniformed
person to head the PNP only adds to some Panamanians' belief
that dark forces are striving to re-store Panama's much
maligned military. The legality of naming an "acting" head
of the PNP is unlikely to be pursued (successfully) in court.
The PRD - the party of Omar Torrijos (the current
president's father) and Manuel Noriega - is grappling with
primary campaign concerns about economic stability and
increased crime. Furthermore, growing national concern about
rising crime -- the third most significant issue cited in
recent polling -- may blunt objections about having Ruiz at
the helm of the PNP as long as he is "tough on crime."
Indeed, in one recent poll, 16 percent of respondents
indicated that they knew of a family member who had been the
victim of a robbery or an assault. Going forward, the USG
will need to consider this anti-militarization phenomenon as
it seeks to advance its security engagement with Panama. End

© Scoop Media

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