Wednesday, Apr 14, 2021

The police in Panama: a Frankenstein in uniform

The police in Panama: a Frankenstein in uniform

Police violence and corruption are spreading through Latin America as if it were another epidemic. The repression of the Colombian and Chilean police, the racism of the uniformed in Brazil, the extrajudicial executions in Venezuela, the disproportionate use of force in Costa Rica, and the militarization of citizen security in Mexico, disputed the pandemic for the Covid-19 the headlines on the news agenda in 2020.

Unlike these security forces, the National Police of Panama does not attract the attention of the international press, or specialized analysts, but this institution also has its share of excesses. The rape of a foreign woman by two agents at an illegal police checkpoint and the investigation of half a dozen former high-ranking officers for arms trafficking are some of the recent scandals at this institution, one of the highest paid in the region, although not the one with the best results.

This security body, which was born in 1990 with the fall of the dictatorship and the elimination of the Panamanian Armed Forces, retains vices and privileges of militarism. In addition to a marked politicization that seeks to guarantee "loyalty" to democracy through an inflated payroll of high-ranking officials. According to the same director of the entity, the institution would have a surplus of more than 150% of the personnel.

A controversial fund to provide private security, the Fiscoi, is another of the insignia that identifies the PNP. Police officers in their spare time provide a particular service for which they use their weapons and regulation vehicles, which translates into parallel salaries and little transparency, which in any other country would be considered embezzlement. This investigation by With Hands on Data and CONNECTAS reveals how this institution operates and the millions that have entered this bottomless bag in the last 10 years.

'Many bosses and few workers'

One of the characteristics of the National Police of Panama (PNP) that is obvious is the large and disproportionate payroll of high-ranking officials. The institution had 200 commissioners - the highest grade in the hierarchy -, 185 deputy commissioners, 313 majors, and 833 captains as of mid-2020.

Taken together, this results in a ratio of more than one officer for every two lower-ranking officers.

"It's like going to war with two soldiers for each general," questioned former Panamanian Security Minister Rodolfo Aguilera.

The police director himself, Jorge Miranda, admitted that there is a commissioners staff inflated to 150%, that is, that the ideal number of these high-ranking officials should be 52, according to a study that the same institution commissioned and that exclusively revealed for this research.

In addition, there are 75% more deputy commissioners than are needed, 50% majors and 116% more captains than required, says the police chief.

This surplus of officers in the upper ranks blurs the functions they perform, according to Carlos Icaza, a retired deputy commissioner. “Here a commissioner does the job of administrator, regional director, minister, governor. They are guardians of presidential stability and security. It is not that they move away from their role, but that should be the work of the local authorities, ”Icaza says.

The authorities use them to satisfy their personal interests, they use them as bodyguards and, in some cases, the relationship is like butlers of ministers and heads of entities, according to the former prosecutor Carlos Herran Morán. "This is embezzlement," he said, while recalling the case of a former magistrate who was dismissed from the Directorate of Judicial Investigation (DIJ) for using more than two dozen agents of that institution to take care of his private security companies.

The commissioners direct the high command in the four levels of the public force: the National Police of Panama (PNP), the National Aeronaval Service (SENAN), the National Border Service (SENAFRONT) and the Institutional Protection Service (SPI). In practice, they exercise the direction of the 20 police zones that the country has, but their power also reaches customs, migration, traffic control, intelligence, tourism, borders, among others. Many ex-military and retired police officers are appointed as liaisons in advisory positions in different ministries and public entities in the country.

High-profile corruption cases on that long roster of commissioners are not uncommon. In 2014, some commissioners were sparked in the scandal for allegedly carrying out illegal wiretaps commissioned by former President Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014). At the time, the former director of the police and former director of the Security Council, Gustavo Pérez, was convicted. In 2019, a trial court declared the former president "not guilty" in the judicial process that was followed by the wiretaps, and recently a higher appeals court reopened the case and the hearing was set for June 2021.

Another notorious case was in July 2020, when an arms trafficking network was discovered in which two former directors of the PNP and several officials were involved, in whose homes they would have found weapons of war that would have left the security forces and would have the objective is to be sold to individuals, according to the report by Deutsche Welle.

On the other hand, the cost of maintaining this inverted pyramid puts greater pressure on the Security budget, already large: a commissioner earns an average of $ 5,228 per month, 49.3% more than what a minister of the Republic earns in base salary ($ 3,500). Even though ministers double their salary with representation expenses (to reach $ 7,000), if annual bonuses, representation expenses and per diem are added, the total income of commissioners exceeds $ 10,000 per month, in addition to other benefits such as escorts , official car, travel and scholarships.

Only the Ministry of Security has a budget that exceeds 800 million dollars a year, that is, six times higher than that of the Public Ministry, which is 145.3 million dollars. Much of the budget of the Security office is destined to pay the payroll of more than 26,516 officers within the Public Force, who hold ranks that go from cadet to commissioners, according to official figures.

Panama is one of the countries in Latin America and the world with the most police officers per inhabitants, with 648 police officers per 100,000 inhabitants. This places it above some of the European countries that are considered very safe and highly rated by their police officers such as Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and Austria. The United Nations Organization suggests a standard of 300 police officers for every 100,000 inhabitants.

Having a significant number of police officers is not in itself questionable. However, in the case of Panama this does not translate into greater security. "The homicide rate in Panama reached 11.2 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2019, the year in which the authorities registered 472 homicides, according to data from the Public Ministry, which represents a notable increase over the total in 2018, which was 439," says the Regional homicide balance prepared by InSight Crime. In 2020 the security situation does not seem to have improved, the year ended with 491 homicides throughout the country.

Police subdue protesters protesting proposals for constitutional reforms at the end of 2019 in Panama City. Photo: Daniel González

How to explain the inverted pyramid in the police structure? The causes of this particular phenomenon have to do with discretion in appointments and the need to guarantee the loyalty of the troop by the Executive, which led to a four-year promotion rule that has generated “an inverted pyramid , with many officers, few agents, "adds former Minister Aguilera.

In Panama there is no general law for promotions within the public force, and the requirements vary with each government. The only thing that remains constant is that all promotions have to be authorized by the President of the Republic, and sometimes discretion relegates meritocracy.

This system has many criticisms, even within the State. In 2019, the then Minister of Security, Rolando Mirones, said publicly that he would demand 180 promotions before the Court, including 21 promotions of commissioners and eight of sub-commissioners, considering that there were irregularities in these processes. The first 14 lawsuits were filed in September of the same year, but these did not include commissioners and sub-commissioners, but captains and elders.

The Court was contacted to have the status of these claims, and the Third Administrative Litigation Chamber said that so far there are 150 claims and some of them are pending. But since they were separate demands, to give a status we had to provide the name of one of the defendants, information that the Ministry of Security has not revealed and that therefore makes it impossible to know the general status of each one.

Miranda, director of the Panamanian police, also criticized that the promotion regime was done at discretion "by time and recommendation and not by merit" and affirmed that this situation will be fixed with a decree for another promotion regulation.

The document that modifies the criteria for promotions was signed by President Cortizo and published in the Gaceta on December 4, 2020, as promised. Three weeks later, the PNP director himself authorized 3,900 new promotions, increasing the problem of the large payroll. The new regulation goes into effect in 2021.

Jorge Miranda, director of the National Police of Panama, admitted that there were an excess of officials and commissioners in the security body, but before the end of 2020 he signed 3,900 promotions. Photo: Daniel González

Although this reform could contribute to solving the problem of the inverted pyramid in the institution in the medium term, the experts consulted for this research assure that other reforms would also be necessary to solve other vices that remain within the police, such as its excessive militaristic culture , which has resulted in a series of complaints of excessive use of force in recent years.

The military foothold keeps going strong

Panama has not had an Army since the return to democracy in 1990. After the 1989 invasion, the country approved an amendment to the Constitution that abolished the armed forces, atomized the new public force into different levels - to avoid the concentration of power - and subordinated them under oath to the Executive Power. But the police force that was built in its replacement is like a hybrid organism, where a strong militaristic culture stands out.

"The Public Force ceased to be a civil service in the government of Martín Torrijos (between 2004 and 2009)," explains political scientist and historian Carlos Guevara Mann. According to him, since then, “the organizations of the public force are directed by the military; they have military operating rules and procedures; they use symbols, hierarchies and military practices; They function completely autonomously, without any supervision by any of the branches of the State. and they act arbitrarily, without abiding by the law and without respect for citizens' rights ”.

Most of the commissioners who are at the head of the security estates, and even the minister, are of military training. They are trained to kill. What does this imply? Carlos Icaza, a retired deputy commissioner of the National Police of Panama (PNP), sums it up as follows: "a policeman can become a military man, but a military man can never be a policeman."

Icaza, who works as a lawyer, explained that those who currently command are people who come with military training and a past linked to the Defense Forces (the army commanded by former dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega). He assured that the institution "remains stagnant because it is passing through bad practices because we want and pretend to be military. He says it knowingly; He graduated in Argentina from the gendarmerie, a mixed institution that is auxiliary to the Army in border matters.

Like him, most commissioners train in military academies in other countries, which reaffirm a military orientation since their training. Many of the commissioners who are currently in the institution come from the time of the dictatorship (1968-1989) when the Defense Forces existed (which was the Panamanian military force) and they sent to study abroad, through scholarships and financial support from foreign governments like the United States, which annually channel many millions to the Ministry of Security and the Police.

According to School Of The Americas Watch (SOA Watch) records, 3,537 Panamanians trained at La Escuela de las Américas before 1989, and another 40 have received training in the post-dictatorship period at Fort Benning, Georgia. Many others have been trained in military academies in different latitudes of the region.

The disadvantages generated by this training are diverse. “The military is there to protect the nation, fight and eliminate enemies; not to arrest criminals or manage local conflicts, ”wrote the Mexican expert, Catalina Pérez Correa, a doctor of law from Stanford University in California and a Research Professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), in an article for El Universal . Although the specialist analyzed the case of Mexico, her statement fits perfectly into the dynamics of other countries in the region, such as Panama, where the militarization of citizen security has been a common practice, which has degenerated into heavy-handed policies, excesses and human rights violations.

On the other hand, in the same analysis Pérez Correa raises how the militarization in Mexico has led to the abandonment and deterioration of civilian security institutions.

Another characteristic of the military training that stands out in the Panamanian case is that the uniformed men respond to some groups to the detriment of others, something "usual in military education," said Oswaldo Fernandez, former director of the PNP.

Officials interviewed for this investigation confirmed that currently the Panamanian police are sending a group of senior officials who all studied in Venezuela: the Minister of Security, the director of the National Aeronaval Service (SENAN), of the Institutional Protection Service (SPI) and the Police itself. So much so, that within the force they are known as “los chamos” (a Venezuelan term used to refer to a friend or partner).

What is striking is that in recent years a group of Venezuelan soldiers trained in the same academies attended by some Panamanian police officers - who today occupy high command - have been singled out for corruption and a series of excesses associated with repression, which ended in human rights violations. Various governments and some international agencies - such as the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, among others - have denounced and sanctioned several of these officers.

In 2012, a series of acts of police repression questioned by Amnesty International, which left almost a dozen dead and more than 700 injured, showed the most violent face of the Panamanian police. Senafront agents - which by law must confine themselves to the borders - were taken to the cities by the Executive to suppress protests by citizens.

Police wall in the 2019 protests. Photo: Daniel González

In the opinion of the jurist Jaime Abad, who was director of the defunct Judicial Technical Police, militarism “never left, it is deeply rooted above all in the officials of the old guard. Still in their slang they are still called command, claw. This makes those who see this behavior a ghost from the past that endangers democracy. But what increases this risk is corruption and the penetration of organized crime in the four components of the public force, in the Public Ministry and the courts of justice”.

The professor at the University of Panama, Miguel Antonio Bernal, agrees that post-invasion demilitarization is a fiction. “The structures of militarism were left intact, both within the constitution and in the laws. The inclusion of the article that Panama will not have an Army only served a purpose of throwing dust in the eyes of the population. And now we are experiencing a growing process of remilitarization, which began to rise in 2007 with the police reform, and is in the most dangerous phase, with President (Laurentino) Cortizo ”, he explained.

The police chiefs share with the President of the Republic, Laurentino Cortizo, the main box at official events. Photo: Daniel González

In the current Government, with Juan Pino as Minister of Security, military personnel have been placed at the head of all the levels of this portfolio. However, in this group there is an exception: Commissioner Miranda, director of the PNP, is a graduate of a police academy in Venezuela, and was director of police intelligence during the government of Ricardo Martinelli.

Even so, this has not meant a management of police practices adjusted to the recommendations of the experts and respect for human rights. During the pandemic, there has been a hardening of police actions. By the end of 2020 there were already 150 complaints from civilians for abuse of authority, involving 189 police officers.

The most notorious cases have been that of a foreign woman who was raped by two PNP officials at a police checkpoint; and that of Juan Cajar, a journalist who covered protests in October and was detained by the police, despite showing the identification card that identified him as a member of the press. In December, a police officer beat a student leader who was protesting in front of the National Assembly. Last year, a video circulated on social networks where the police detained 50 people and held them in makeshift cages at a bus stop.

On the other hand, some politicians, such as Congressman Rony Arúz, of the opposition Democratic Change party, have proposed legalizing a greater use of force with firearms, as a measure to contain the crime rates that are increasing. In this way, the rule that imposes on officers not to use firearms but as a last resort would end. According to bill 306, “the policy that the police must exhaust all possible means before being able to use the firearm is unsustainable and endangers not only the life and integrity of the law enforcement officer, but also his or her safety. legal and even their freedom ”. If approved, the policy would set a precedent for the militarization of the police forces, agreed the majority of experts consulted for this investigation.

The 'privatized' police

Another controversial component that makes the Panamanian police particular is the possibility of overpaying officials, partially using their investiture and weapons. In the streets of the capital of the isthmus, for example, it is common to see delivery trucks of recognized products, escorted by pickets of three or more agents of the National Police. They use uniforms, vehicles and weapons of the security body, although they are on their day off.

The officials are carrying out one of the security tasks assigned by the Exchange Fund of the Service for Compliance with Institutional Objectives (Fiscoi), an agency dependent on the PNP that operates as a private security company. For this “operation” of custody they receive an additional income. They call it paid service.

Although Latin America has a long and consistent history of rejecting the privatization of essential public services, especially with regard to the security and defense bodies of the territory, the history of Panama allows it to be the exception that confirms the rule. The Fiscoi is a kind of private security agency that functions as one more unit within the structure of the National Police of Panama.

Officials of the National Police of Panama charge up to 40 dollars a day for the private security services they provide through the Fiscoi. Photo: Daniel González

This instance guarantees that the agents exercise during their rest time the protection of private businesses, delivery trucks, events, concerts, fairs, and a long etcetera. The police charge 40 dollars a day per agent, of which 11 dollars go to the Fiscoi fund and 29 dollars are paid to the unit that worked. The police are the ones who decide how many agents "should be hired" depending on the event. The money goes directly to a special bank account of the Fiscoi, a kind of petty cash that the entity manages discretionally, without prior control of expenses by the Panamanian Comptroller's Office as long as the amount does not exceed $ 20,000.

“We police officers cannot go out to do a second job on the street like any other citizen, that is why the idea was born that when the units (as police officers are called in Panama) were free, they could carry out a remunerated activity ”Said Commissioner Jorge Miranda, director of the PNP.

But some analysts and experts do not think the same. They question the conflict of interest of a public force that is paid extra to perform functions that are within their natural role. “The Police stop doing their work of repression and are managing a kind of security agency. They shouldn't be in it, they should go after the criminals. And the service of taking care of a public event should be free, ”said former Security Minister Rodolfo Aguilera.

The business is round. Among the requirements for fairs, dances, concerts and other massive events to obtain municipal permission, proof of hiring of the Fiscoi is required. This also impedes free competition, argues Aura Rosa Maury, an artistic promoter with a long history in organizing events in Panama. "They even put people in for free," he says, to denounce some of the attributions that officials take for offering the service.

In addition, it is a practice that according to the legal interpretation could be considered a crime, since the officers use uniforms, weapons and vehicles of a public entity of the State to carry out private work. In fact, the Panamanian Penal Code defines as embezzlement of use: “when the public servant uses, for purposes other than the service, for his own benefit or that of others, or allows another to use, money, securities or goods that are intended for his functions or that are in their custody ” . In any case, this fund has been established as one of the most generous prerogatives that demonstrate the power of the institution and that allows them to manage a substantial flow of resources almost without any control.

A document to which this investigation had access exclusively shows that between 2008 and 2018 the Police obtained over 63.4 million dollars just for this parallel private security service. In 10 years, the PNP doubled the amount billed per year, from 3.92 million dollars in 2008 to 6.89 million dollars in 2018.

Retired Deputy Commissioner Carlos Icaza admits that until 2007 "it was a petty cash of the bosses, which a great majority used as their own and they were not accountable to anyone." That year the fund was regulated, forcing the police to send reports - which are not public - to the Comptroller's Office on its use. But since there is no prior control, the State's oversight is limited to receiving the invoices and registering them.

The income report and the purchases that are made also have a halo of secrecy. What the police buy with these funds can be as diverse as the tastes of each zone chief. Although the entity does not publish a detailed report on expenses, reports obtained through an advanced search on the Comptroller General's site, record such atypical purchases as car linings, air conditioners and marriage ceremonies.

Isaac Brawerman, president of the Panamanian Association of Gun Owners (APPA), relates the import ban decreed in the country in 2010 with the upturn in the revenue of the Fiscoi. "The ban was a tailored recipe, eliminated private competition and entered a great actor, the National Police," he said.

The restriction forced citizens who wanted to feel safe to "hire" security. From 2011 to 2018, the profits of the Fiscoi (which used the police equipment) doubled, while the private security agencies were relegated by not being able to renew their inventory of weapons.

Both the Comptroller's Office and the Police declined to comment on the Fiscoi's income and expenditure reports. Miranda, director of the Police, avoided the question about the amount accumulated in the Fiscoi and did not provide the criteria on which they are based to make purchases that come out of that fund, and that according to the law are "to meet institutional objectives.

Eric L. Olson, Director of the DC Seattle Foundation Central American Platform and a global member of the Wilson Center, with extensive experience in police forces at the continental level, explained that there is no distinction between the policeman who is in custody or the one who is hired on days off. In Washington for example, police officers are paid to maintain order and have to abide by state laws.

“The police role is clear and citizens have the right to complain when they break the law. The issue is how the rights of citizens to be protected are guaranteed. There are standards on transparency and on who benefits that have to be met, ”he said.

Before the Panamanian case, Olson reacted by describing it as "a possible parallel and uncontrolled security system."

Testimony from an active duty official, who agreed to be interviewed for this investigation on the condition that his identity be protected for security reasons, confirms Olson's claim.

“I have worked for the Fiscoi. I signed up for the list, and when they need me I call the substation to notify. And I go where they need me ”, confirmed the agent, who receives an additional payment for this service. But he assures that “no one knows where these monies go, everyone thinks they are in the pocket of the greats. They say it's for the police, but you can't see it, ”he said.

These irregular and opaque practices identified within the National Police of Panama do not appear to be close to disappearing. On the contrary, some decisions, such as the signing of 3,900 promotions of police officers at the end of December 2020, point to the strengthening of this uniformed Frankenstein.


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