State Border Services – Senafront – To Protect and Serve

During the December 2014 Panama Relocation Tour, we stopped at a place half way between Boquete and Volcan to visit with a team of people from Senafront who were practicing rescue missions under treacherous conditions.  Panama has no military but they do have National Police and the State Border Services like Senafront.

The primary mission of the State Border Service of the Republic of Panama to protect the life, honor, property and other rights and freedoms of individuals under the jurisdiction of the state, maintain public order, prevent, suppress and investigate criminal acts and faults and protect the land and river borders of the Republic of Panama.

Some were jumping off a bridge (with a rope) in to a deep gorge with rapids below.  Others were climbing over rocks to practice saving people in rough terrain.

Panama Senafront Rescue

Panama Senafront Team

Panama Senafront Rescue Practice

Senafront Ambulance

Senafront Bus

Here’s the history of Panama’s military:

The Panamanian Public Forces 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, leaving it with only small para-military forces. This came as a result of a US invasion that overthrew a military dictatorship which ruled the country from 1968 to 1989. The final military dictator, Manuel Noriega, had been belligerent toward the USA culminating in the killing of a US Marine Lieutenant and US invasion ordered by President, George H. W. Bush. Panama maintains forces, consisting of armed Police and Security forces, and small air and maritime forces. They are tasked with law enforcement, and can perform limited military actions. Since 2010 they report directly 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 became president himself in 1952. His first act 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 led by Lieutenant Colonel Omar Torrijos and Major Boris Martínez. 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 de facto ruler of the country until his death in a 1981 plane 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 reestructured 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 the role several loyal military unit, 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. “Dobermen” (a brutal 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. Curiously the “Doberman” Co. was brutally disbanded and replaced by the no less rutless 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 80’s, he formed the civilian paramilitary unit called the Dignity Battalions composed by regular sympatizers 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 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, 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) was created as an independent force from the National Police for the defense of the national borders.

The New Ministry

In February 2010, the new administration led by President Ricardo Martinelli has proposed the creation of a new Ministry of Public Security, that will replace the Ministry of Government and Justice to be divided in two new Ministries (Public Security and Government), which shall be placed under the National Police, National Naval Air Service, Immigration Service and National Borders Service. The Ministry was formally created on April 14 the same year with the passage of Law no.15 by the National Assembly proving for its creation.

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.


Jackie Lange

Jackie Lange is the founder of Panama Relocation Tours and lives in the highlands of Boquete Panama. She has helped thousands of people relocate to Panama.

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