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.
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.
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.
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.