According to a report from the police in Ciudad Neily, Costa Rica, witnesses last saw Dr. Hugo Spadafora alive reading a newspaper at a Panamanian National Guard border checkpoint, where he was being detained after having been removed from a bus, about noon on Friday, Sept. 13. The next person the Costa Rican police could find who had seen him was the young man who found his body, "completely decapitated," in La Vaquita River just across the border from Panama the next afternoon.

Dr. Spadafora was known, among other things, for having formed a battalion in Panama to fight against the Somoza family in Nicaragua. He was also known for being a keen critic of, among other things, the alleged drug trafficking connections of Gen. Manuel Noriega, strongman of Panama.

The murder and its manner stunned Panama, which is not one of those Central American places where the killing, let alone the evident torture and beheading, of critics is routine. In an important sense, however, Dr. Spadafora was not the only victim. There is reason to believe that the elected president, Nicolas Arditas Barletta, was planning to launch an inquiry into the crime upon his return from a trip to the United Nations in October. While he was still in New York, Gen. Noriega forced his ouster; actually, President Barletta, struggling to maintain a thread of constitutionality, "separated" himself from office under an obscure article and technically remains president.

The story was put out that the Barletta economic policies were largely to blame, but knowledgeable Panamanians look more to the Spadafora affair. Panama's painful progress toward democracy was thereby "beheaded" too.

In Panama these days, the atmosphere reeks of police intimidation, but large numbers of citizens have come out in the streets calling peacefully for an inquiry into the Spadafora murder. Meanwhile, the armed forces are bringing under their direct control a whole range of functions -- ports, railroads, customs, immigration -- previously and more properly under civil administration. The Barletta economic policy, which had been sanctioned by the political parties, threatens to go by the boards, with immense potential costs to the country's economic viability and credit worthiness.

Gen. Noriega is well known in Panama. He is becoming well known outside Panama as an imperious leader who fears to let independent investigators examine the Spadafora affair and to let independent citizens control their government. Almost every country in Latin America is going the democratic way except Nicaragua and Panama. Gen. Noriega is an embarrassment to his country, and to the integrity of the Panamanian armed forces.