Jorge H. Correa was the kind of guy who rose to the top under the regime of Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. As the officer in charge of Noriega's Modelo jail, he reportedly freed drug traffickers for a price. Correa got caught and exiled briefly to Bolivia.
But unlike Noriega, Correa is a free man today. In fact, he is a ranking major in Panama's new police force, the "Public Force." He and other Noriega cronies in that police force survived the U.S. invasion last December and are rising to the top again.
Sources in Panama tell us that the Public Force is dominated by members of Noriega's notoriously corrupt Panama Defense Forces (PDF) and that the new government of Guillermo Endara is making little effort to screen out the bad apples.
We investigated several cases and found that Endara isn't picky enough about who gets a gun and a badge these days.
In the highest ranks of the Public Force sit some of the most powerful elements of Noriega's PDF. Noriega's former chief of police, chief of special operations and chief of U.S.-Panamanian joint military operations are ranking colonels in the new force. In all, 14,000 PDF members are now employed as security police for the Endara government.
After the U.S. invasion, Col. Roberto Armijo was installed as head of the Public Force. He is believed to be the person who tipped off Noriega to a coup attempt last October and allowed Noriega to escape the mutineers. An outcry followed Armijo's appointment to head the force and he was dismissed.
In another case, 13 former PDF members involved in the holding of American hostages at the Marriott Hotel during the invasion later turned up in the ranks of the new force. The 13 eventually were weeded out.
Apparently all a recruit must do to get into the force is express anti-Noriega sentiments. But sources close to the U.S. Southern Command in Panama told our associate Dean Boyd that while the recruits may now be conveniently anti-Noriega, "most are still committed to his cause: corruption."
Recent incidents in Panama reveal how unsettled the country is in spite of U.S. claims that the invasion has set Panama on a new track.
Panamanian special prosecutor Rodrigo Miranda was fired when he implied that high-ranking members of the Public Force were involved in the kidnapping and death of a 3-year-old child, the grandson of a former PDF colonel who was thought to have looted banks on the day of the invasion.
Miranda claims he got his information from sources in the U.S. Southern Command, but Southern Command officials are now keeping a tight lip about the case.
This scandal and partisan rivalry help to keep Endara off balance and rumors of a coup in circulation. On May 1, while Endara was in the United States, his presidential guard got involved in a skirmish at the palace. The government later claimed there was no coup attempt, just a training exercise for the guards. But so far no one has adequately explained why Endara's beloved godson, an employee of the presidential palace, was fatally shot in that exercise.