In late 1979, scores of identical billboards appeared throughout the narrow, stringbean of a country that joins Central America with the South American continent. The billboards showed only a face -- a tanned, rugged-looking man wearing a bush hat with the brim sides turned up, his eyes staring at the sky -- and two words. Omar. Cumplido. Omar. Mission Accomplished.

Everyone in Panama knew without further explanation that the "mission" was the establishment of Panamanian sovereignty over the 10-mile wide slice of land that had split their nation down the middle since its birth in 1903. And even his political enemies, who were many, were willing to give the credit for the U.S.-Panama Canal treaties to Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera.

Gen. Torrijos' death in a plane crash at age 52 came long after his moment in the international spotlight had passed. Shortly after the canal treaties were ratified by the U.S. Senate, by a single-vote margin in 1978, even before they went into effect in October of the following year, he had stepped down as "maximum leader" of the Panamanian "revolution" and spent most of his time shuttling quietly among several residences, heding the Panamanian National Guard and mulling over guerrilla wars in neighboring republics.

But Gen. Torrijos historically had little patience with the day-to-day workings of domestic rule, preferring to leave it to technocrats and cronies. His politics defied description -- he was alternately referred as a Marxist, a fascist, a "tinhorn dictator," a revolutionary, a boorish soldier. The title he seemed most to prefer was "international statesman," self-bestowed with amazement and amusement when the world turned to watch little Panama's struggle with the preeminent power of the Western world.

More than anything, "the general," as most of his countrymen called him, was the quintessential Latin American populist, the ostensibly humble man who took power with a gun from the traditional economic leadership and rode the tide of nationalism for all it was worth.

His eyes were reddened, his reputation as a boozer and womanizer with few equals in Latin America, Gen. Torrijos could inspire equal amounts of distaste and adoration in his countrymen, although even his opponents, at least the more moderate among them, felt he was a lesser evil than the leftist politics that preceded him.

As far as Latin dictators went, his style was relatively benign. Active opponents were exiled rather than physically eliminated. There were no charges of systematic torture, and he frequently spoke derisively about fellow rulers known for heavier hands in the hemisphere -- particularly former Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza.

For public consumption, Gen. Torrijos sepcialized in the outrageous. Reporters accompanying him on his regular tours of the countryside were expected to join in endless hikes over jungle mountains, broken by his occasional stops to strip to his trousers and jump into a cooling mountain stream.

His personal life, in comparison to that of many Latin leaders, was Spartan. Although his wife and several children maintained a residence in the capital, Gen. Torrijos was rarely, if ever, at home. Instead, he traveled among two modest homes owned by political cronies in Panama City and two houses in the countryside. One, a beachside retreat called Farallon, was a California ranch-style house where National Guard tanks kept patrol along the waterfront.

The other, which appeared to be his favorite, was a two-room wooden hut, 90 miles from the capital in a jungle town called Coclecito. It was to Coclecito that Gen. Torrijos was traveling when his plane crashed Friday. He appeared to take great delight in forcing business-suited petitioners to travel through the jungle to see him, uncomfortably stating their cases at the huge wooden table where all were invited to partake of coarse peasant food and listen to ribald tales of his travels around the world.[TEXT OMITTED] town of Santiago, the son of school-teachers Gen. Torrijos spent most of his life becoming a soldier, with training in El Salvador's military schools, as well as in the U.S. Canal Zone military schools that he later was to describe as part of occupying forces in his country. By 1966, he had become a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard.

Panamanian political life, since independence in 1903, had been dominated by a few select families who traded power among themselves with little ideological involvement. In 1968, Arnulfo Arias, already twice thrown out of the presidency by the National Guard, again was voted into office. Eleven days later, a group of officers led by colonel Torrijos and major Boris Martinez ousted Arias.

Within months, the two usurpers disagreed over the pace of social reforms they had pledged. Colonel Torrijos threw out Martinez and promoted himself to brigadier general, ruling in relative tranquility until December 1969.

While Gen. Torrijos was attending a horse race in Mexico City, dissident officers staged a countercoup, charging that the general had developed a "cult of personality" that illbefitted either the nation's goals or military dignity. In a dramatic gesture, helped by his schoolmates in El Salvador's armed forces, Gen. Torrijos chartered a plane and flew to the northern Panamanian city of David, where he was greeted by hundreds of cheering supporters.

He left David by road in a Volkswagen, with an escort of troops and a motley collection of cars, taxis and buses that swelled in every town along the way to an enormous caravan driving toward Panama City. By the time he arrived, waving his trademark bush hat above his head, tens of thousands of Panamanians were waiting for him, and Gen. Torrijos rode to victory across the Bridge of the Americas spanning the U.S.-controlled canal.

Finally in undisputed control, Gen. Torrijos tightened his grip on power, gagging the press, exiling more political opponents and officially postponing vaguely scheduled elections. But at the same time, he pushed forward with social reforms, including a literacy campaign and land redistribution.

In 1972, the general rewrote the Panamanian constitution, with a clause declaring him "Maximum Ruler" and head of state for six years. Having already abolished the Congress with established political parties, he divided the country into 505 districts, each of which directly elected a representative to a new national assembly. He declared it more representative than Panama's historical form of government.

Gen. Torrijos then focused his attention on the Panama Canal, and what he called the "arbitrary occupation" of the Canal Zone by thousands of American troops under a 1903 agreement giving the United States sovereignty over the waterway and surrounding land "in perpetuity."

By 1973, the issue was brought to a head with a U.N. Security Council vote, passed overwhelmingly but vetoed by the United States, calling on the two countries to draft a new treaty that would guarantee Panama's "sovereignty over all its territory."

Although serious negotiations over the canal began with the Ford administration, it was not unitl Jimmy Carter took office that discussions headed toward fruition. The treaties, transferring the Canal Zone immediately to Panama and control over the canal by the year 2,000, were signed in September 1977. But that was only the beginning of the real battle.

Throughout 1978, and a stormy Senate ratification battle, the treaties were described by U.S. conservatives, including future president Ronald Reagan, as a "giveaway" of U.S. territory. Gen. Torrijos was called everything from "unstable" as an ally, to a drug smuggler and a communist.

According to U.S. intelligence reports, there was little reason to believe Gen. Torrijos himself was involved in the illegal drug rings that used Panama as a transit point between South America and the United States. More Credibly, it was believed that members of his family and government had enriched themselves in various illegal ways, while the genral looked the other way.

As for the charge of communism, Gen. Torrijos' proponents pointed to the fact that Panama was a veritable bastion of Western capitalism, with scores of international banks taking adventure of its liberal tax laws and lax accounting procedures.

Gen. Torrijos did say one of his heores was Fidel Castro. But his admiration for the Cuban communist was equalled only by his respect for Carter, a man he said had come to power "in a moral coup."

Throughout the ratification battle, Gen. Torrijos put his money on Carter, refusing to listen to warnings that the U.S. president's personal popularity had waned to the point where he would be unable to counter strong opposition to the treaties.

In the end, following Gen. Torrijos' threat that he would blow up the canal locks if the United States did not withdraw, the treaties passed the Senate by one vote. The genral celebreted by diving headlong into the waterway and announced he was turning the former U.S. military counterinsurgency training school into a day-care center.

To the surprise of many inside and outside of Panama, Gen. Torrijos stepped down as head of state in 1978 at the end of his self-awarded constitutional mandate. His handpicked successor, Aristides Royo, was installed as president, poular presidential elections were scheduled for 1984. Gen. Torrijos said he was "retiring to the barracks" as head of the National Guard. Government control was loosened, political parties reestablised and Panama took on at least the initial vestiges of an about-to-be-democracy.

But the treaty battle had whetted Gen. Torrijos' taste for international politicking, and he retained control over Panama's foreign policy, finding an outlet for his energies in moral and material support for Sandinista guerrillas then fighting to oust his archenemy in Nicaraguan, Somoza. Throughout the Nicaraguan conflict, Panama furnished aircraft and arms, served along with Costa Rica as headquarters for Nicaraguan revolutionaries and led the inernational battle for diplomatic support.

U.S. conservative critics charged the Sandinista support was proof of Gen. Torrijos' communist leanings. Many who knew him said he was trying to outdo Castro as Latin America's ranking revolutionary figure. Others believe he was simply bored with posttreaty Panama.

If assistance for the Sandinistas meant Gen. Torrijos was a communist, however, he proceeded to confound his critics last year when he offered Panamanian asylum to the ousted shah of Iran -- in what he said was a favor to Carter and a "gesture of friendship" to the United States -- for a three-month stay that ended in the shah's hasty flight to his final destination in Egypt.

In an interview the day after the shah's departure, Gen. Torrijos, his eyes redder than ever, dressed in pajamas and chomping on his ubiquitous cigar, seemed deflated. The reporters had all gone, and the most pressing issue in Panama at the time were government-decreed price increases for bread and cement, sure to cause him headaches.

He talked about perhaps becoming involved in a newly bubbling Central American revolution, this time in El Salvador. But, far from his hated for Samoza, Gen. Torrijos had long and strong contacts with the Salvadoran militiary leaders, and little sympathy for the leftist guerrillas trying to overthrow them.

As he saw it, he had only one alternative to the obscurity of an elder statesman role in his own country -- the possibility the he would become a candidate in the 1984 presidential elections. I seemed clear his old adversary, Arnulfo Arias, would run, and an Arias victory would be intolerable. Almost as intolerable as having to dress in civilian suits, go to an office every day and act respectable.