Organizational descriptions of the Defense Forces included a
structure of four military regions within which the military zones
fig. 11). In 1987, however, these regions existed
only on paper. Noriega had referred to the military regions as
areas "which constitute the strategic triangles of national
security," but their eventual activation was thought to be linked
to the further elaboration and expansion of Panama's four combat
During the 1950s and 1960s, when the National Guard was still
primarily a police force, the military zones together with the
General Staff were the heart of the institution. Commanders of the
ten military zones into which the country was then divided were
powerful figures who often served as de facto provincial governors.
Usually holding the rank of major, they could expect their next
assignment to be command of another zone or a position on the
General Staff, then largely composed of lieutenant colonels. When
the National Guard gave way to the FDP, the zone commanders' role
remained significant even though the 1983 law made no specific
provision for military zones; it simply stated, "The internal
regulations of the Defense Forces . . . can divide the
territory . . . into regions, military zones,
detachments, districts, or any other form of division suitable for
the better exercise of institutional functions . . . ."
In the mid-1980s, zone commanders continued to be regarded as
the most powerful individuals in the provinces, surpassing by far
the importance of the provincial governors. They controlled
political, military, and economic affairs in the zones, and they
rather than the governors settled labor disputes and strikes.
Within the FDP, the zone commanders, generally holding the rank of
major, were also significant. They were personally selected by the
FDP commander and were directly responsible to him. Military units
headquartered within the zones, including the emergent combat
battalions, appeared to be fully integrated into the zones and thus
firmly under the control of the zone commanders. The Fifth Military
Zone, for example, was the home base of the Peace Battalion, whose
commander reported directly to the zone commander.
There were twelve military zones in 1987, the most recent
having been created in 1986 in the Comarca de San Blas
fig. 1). This area had traditionally exercised considerable territorial
autonomy as the home of the Cuna Indians
, ch. 2).
Their traditional suspicion of the Guard (and their attempt to
insulate themselves from Hispanic politico-military influence) was
partially overcome in the 1980s, when more Indians entered the
military, and as a result of increased encroachment on their
territory by Colombians and settlers from other parts of Panama.
Nevertheless, the creation of the Twelfth Military Zone became
acceptable to the Cuna only after lengthy FDP lobbying and the
granting of various concessions.
Data as of December 1987