Panamanian Public Forces

The Panamanian Public Forces (Spanish: Fuerza Pública de la República de Panamá) are the national security forces of Panama. Panama is the second country in Latin America (the other being Costa Rica) to permanently abolish standing armies, with Panama retaining a small para-military security force. This came as a result of a U.S. invasion that overthrew a military dictatorship which ruled Panama from 1968 to 1989. The final military dictator, Manuel Noriega, had been belligerent toward the U.S. culminating in the killing of a U.S. Marine lieutenant and U.S. invasion ordered by U.S. President George H. W. Bush.

Panamanian Public Forces
Panamanian Coat of arms
Service branchesNational Border Service
National Aeronaval Service
Panamanian National Police
Institutional Protection Service
Commander-in-ChiefLaurentino Cortizo
Minister of
Public Security
Alexis Bethancourt Yau
Active personnel30,000 active (as of 2016)[1]
50,000 part-time & reserve agents
BudgetUSD 481 million (2011)[1]

Panama maintains armed police and internal security forces, and small air and maritime forces. They are tasked with law enforcement and can perform limited military actions. Since 2010 they have reported to the Ministry of Public Security.


The National Police

Panama's first army was formed in 1903 when the commander of a brigade of the Colombian army defected to the pro-independence side during Panama's fight for independence. His brigade became the Panamanian army.

In 1904, the army tried to overthrow the government but failed. The United States persuaded Panama that a standing army could threaten the security of the Panama Canal Zone. Instead, the country set up a "National Police." For 48 years, this was the only armed force in Panama.

However, starting in the late 1930s, the National Police attracted several new recruits who had attended military academies in other Latin American countries. Combined with increased spending on the police, this began a process of militarization. The process sped up under José Remón, who became the Police's commandant (commanding officer) in 1947. He himself had graduated from Mexico's military academy. He began promoting fewer enlisted men to officer rank, giving the police a more military character.

The National Guard

After playing a role in overthrowing two presidents, Remón resigned his commission and ran for president for a coalition that won the elections in 1952. One of his first acts as President was to reorganize the National Police along military lines with a new name, Guardia Nacional de Panamá (National Guard of Panamá). The new grouping retained police functions as well. With a new name came increased American funding.

In 1968, the Guard overthrew President Arnulfo Arias in a coup d'état led by Major Boris Martínez and others, including then Major Omar Torrijos, after newly elected Arias forced senior officers into retirement or assignments in distant provinces by presidential order. They completed the process of converting the Guard into a full-fledged army. In the process, they promoted themselves to full colonels. Torrijos thrust Martínez aside in 1969, promoted himself to brigadier general, and was the de facto ruler of the country until his death in a 1981 plane crash. (See Panamanian Air Force FAP-205 crash)

The Panamanian Defense Forces

After Torrijos' death, and two successive commanders with lesser political influence, the position was eventually assumed by Manuel Noriega, who restructured all of the National Guard's military and police forces under his command, into the Fuerzas de Defensa de Panamá (Panama Defense Forces). He built the PDF into a structured force, and further consolidated his political power. Under Noriega, the PDF was more a tool of political control, than a force dedicated to national defense and law enforcement.

Besides consolidating his grasp on power by increasing military forces and spending, Noriega also increased the power and influence of the PDF Military Intelligence Section (G-2 for its standard military designation), which he commanded prior his rise to power and it became a secret police, feared even inside the PDF ranks; and he also relied on several loyal military units, like the 7th Inf. Co. "Machos de Monte" (Mountain Machos, a guerrilla warfare unit named after a sort of aggressive wild boar), the 1st Public Order Co. "Doberman" (a riot police force), the UESAT (Unidades Especiales de Servicio Anti Terror, an Israeli trained counter-terrorism strike force). That way, he was able not only to maintain an iron grip on day to day political affairs but also to survive various attempted coups. The "Doberman" Co. was disbanded and replaced by the 2nd Public Order Co. "Centurions" after the "Dobermen" key role in the last coup attempt against Noriega.

Due to the political turmoil of the late 1980s, he formed the civilian paramilitary unit called the Dignity Battalions composed by regular sympathizers and the CODEPADI, a similar group formed by civil servants inside public institutions; both intended to bolster up forces to be used in case of foreign military action, but were mainly used as shock troops in acts of political repression.

As stated before, the PDF main role as a tool for political control of the population by intimidation, coercion and even direct aggression, instead of the legitimate role[2] of armed forces in national defense, was proved when they showed to be largely ineffective as a combat force during Operation Just Cause, when U.S. Forces invaded Panama and overthrew Noriega in 1989, where only some individuals (including last-minute civilian volunteers who despite opposing the regime considered their duty to fight against foreign forces), small units, and in some cases even the Dignity Battalions presented more armed resistance.

Panamanian Public Forces

On February 10, 1990, the government of then President Guillermo Endara abolished Panama's military and reformed the security apparatus by creating the Panamanian Public Forces. In October 1994, Panama's Legislative Assembly approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting the creation of a standing military force, but allowing the establishment of a special temporary military to counter acts of "external aggression." The PDF was replaced with the Panamanian Public Forces.

By then, The PPF included the National Police, National Maritime Service, National Air Service, Judicial and Technical Police (PTJ) for investigatory activities, and an armed Institutional Protection Service or SPI which consist mainly on the Presidential Guard. The PPF is also capable of performing limited military duties.

In contrast to the former PDF, the Panamanian Public Forces is on public record and under control of the (elected) government.

In 2007 the Judicial and Technical Police (PTJ) was split into the Judicial Investigation Directorate (DIJ), which was merged back into the National Police, and a group of minor technical services that were to remain under the General Attorney's control. In November 2008, the Servicio Aéreo Nacional (National Air Service) merged with its maritime counterpart, the Servicio Maritimo Nacional (National Maritime Service) to become the Servicio Nacional Aeronaval (National Aeronaval Service), also the new Servicio Nacional de Fronteras (National Borders Service, at the time a special branch of the National Police) was created as an independent force from the National Police for the defense of the national borders.

The following three years were formative for the Panamanian Public Forces. As these institutions endeavored to understand their roles within the greater Government of Panama's strategy and goals, the services struggled for funding, manning, and training to counter Panama's burgeoning threats. While the separate services within the Panamanian Public Forces received varying levels of government support, the Forces writ large respected human rights. [3]

The New Ministry

In February 2010, the new administration led by President Ricardo Martinelli proposed the Ministry of Government and Justice to be divided in two new Ministries: The Ministry of Public Security (in charge of security policies and affairs, also oversight of security forces and intelligence agencies including the National Police, National Borders Service, National Aeronaval Service and the National Immigration Service) and the Government Ministry (an Executive branch in charge of themes related with public governance and internal security) The Ministry of Public Security was formally created on April 14 the same year with the passage of Law no.15 by the National Assembly proving for its creation. Only the Institutional Protection Service reports directly to the Ministry of the Presidency.

Immigration, Customs and Passport

In 2012, The National Customs Authority, the National Immigration Service (SNM) and the National Passport, following advice from the government of the United States of America would merge and form other security sectors autonomous or entity of the Republic of Panama, the Government Executive issued Decree 871 of November 14, 2012 that creates an interagency commission to first take care of structuration, coordination and technical process for the merger of the first customs and immigration agencies to subsequently merge passports.

The relevant decree for the merger was published in the Official Gazette 27165 of 16 November 2012 as the first step towards that goal.

Although not a part of the Public Forces, the new National Immigration Service reports to the Public Security Ministry directly.


As of 2012, the National Police Force's maneuver units comprised:

  • One presidential guard battalion (under-strength)[4]
  • One military police battalion[4]
  • Eight paramilitary companies[4]
  • 18 police companies[4]

The IISS also noted that there were reports of a special forces unit having been formed.[4]

At this time, the National Public Forces had a total strength of 11,000 personnel and was equipped only with small arms.[4] Today, the National Police has a total of 22,000 active sworn personnel.

The National Border Service is organized into a brigade of 6 border battalions, a logistics battalion and a fluvial unit, all in the Colombia–Panama border, plus a special forces battalion and an independent battalion patrolling the border with Costa Rica.

The National Aeronaval Service has a Marine battalion, aviation security police group, an air group, naval squadron and SAR unit. The IPS has a full Presidential Guard battalion plus, starting from 2015, a Pikemen and Musketeers' Company and Cavalry Squad wearing historical uniforms from the 16th to 17th centuries, at the start of Spanish rule in Panama, in the tradition of the Honourable Artillery Company.

While training for other ranks is per their respective training commands, officer training for the PFF is done at the National Police Academy "Doctor Justo Arosemena" in Panama City and all officers graduate with a bachelor's degree and are commissioned Second Lieutenants. Many officers of the PPF nowadays are also graduates of foreign exchange programs in Latin American military and police academies.

Current inventory

Main article: Panamanian Public Forces Aviation

Aircraft Origin Type Variant In service Notes
Cessna 208 United States transport / utility 3[5]
Piper PA-31 United States utility 1[5]
CASA C-212 Spain utility / transport 3[5]
Embraer ERJ 145 Brazil VIP transport Legacy 600 1[6]
DHC-6 Twin Otter Canada utility transport 1[5] STOL capable aircraft – 1 on order
Bell 407 United States utility 1[5]
Bell 412 United States utility 3[5]
Bell 212 United States utility 3[5]
Bell UH-1 United States utility UH-1H 1[5]
MD500 Defender United States light utility 1[5]
AgustaWestland AW109 Italy counter narcotics 1[5]
AgustaWestland AW139 Italy counter narcotics 5 2 on order[5]
Trainer Aircraft
T-35 Pillán Chile trainer 4[5]

Maritime forces


Vessel Origin Type In service Notes
Balsam United States Patrol boat 1[4]
Chiriqui United States Patrol boat 3[4]
Panama United States Patrol boat 2[4]
Panquiaco United States Patrol boat 2[4]
Tres De Noviembre United States Patrol boat 5[4]
Escudo de Veraguas United States Patrol boat 1[4]
Flamenco United States Patrol boat 1[4]
Naos United States Patrol boat 1[4]
Negrita United States Patrol boat 1[4]
Nombre de Dios United States Patrol boat 1[4]
Taboga United States Patrol boat 1[4]


  1. IISS (2012), p. 397
  2. "Panama". U.S. Department of State.
  3. "Panama". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 2017-06-29.
  4. IISS (2012), p. 398
  5. "World Air Forces 2018". Flightglobal Insight. 2018. Retrieved 14 January 2018.
  6. "Panama homeland security signs for six AW139s". Retrieved 14 May 2015.
Works cited

Further reading

  • Mellander, Gustavo A. (1971) The United States in Panamanian Politics: The Intriguing Formative Years. Daville, Ill.: Interstate Publishers. OCLC 138568.
  • Mellander, Gustavo A.; Nelly Maldonado Mellander (1999). Charles Edward Magoon: The Panama Years. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Plaza Mayor. ISBN 1-56328-155-4. OCLC 42970390.
  • Robert C. Harding, Military Foundations of Panamanian Politics, Transaction Publishing, 2001.
  • Robert C. Harding, The History of Panama, Greenwood Publishing, 2006.
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