When U.S. forces invaded last December, most Panamanians celebrated what they thought would be a future of law and order. Conditions have improved, but the hopes that rose with the ouster of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega have given way to a deep distrust of the new U.S.-backed government.

Panama's stagnant judicial system and new attorney general have done little to allay the distrust. And the Legislative Assembly has been unable to write a new constitution to replace the old one written by Noriega's predecessor, dictator Omar Torrijos.

"The basic problem is that the government is trying to function in a democracy with the judicial system of a dictatorship," Panamanian journalist Guillermo Sanchez Bourbon said. Recent polls show that nearly 68 percent of Panamanians are unhappy with their system of justice.

Miguel Bernal, chairman of the Public Law School at the University of Panama, was beaten up by members of Noriega's Panama Defense Forces more than a decade ago. With Noriega out and new President Guillermo Endara in, Bernal filed a complaint against the two soldiers last March. "That same day, I read in the newspapers that one of the men, captured by the Americans during the invasion, had been released from jail by the Endara government. The other was still serving in a high position in the government." No wonder Panamanians are left wondering if anything has changed.

Attorney General Rogelio Cruz Rios gives them plenty of cause to wonder. Cruz was appointed last May in spite of his links to dictatorships of the past and his involvement with a bank that was closed in 1985 for allegedly laundering drug money. Since then, Cruz has done little to redeem himself. A poll in September put his popularity rating at 15.5 percent.

Cruz presides over a system that reportedly lets drug dealers escape from jail and lets Noriega cronies out of prison for vacations. His popularity took a big nose dive last month when he made a very big deal out of what may have been a very small coup attempt.

The Endara government uncovered what it said was a plot to overthrow the president. But sources in Panama told our associate Dean Boyd that the alleged plot amounted to a few bombs set off in an outlying province. U.S. officials say they have no information indicating that the bombings were part of a larger plot.

But that didn't stop Cruz from accusing former national police chief Eduardo Herrera of leading a plot to overthrow the government. Herrera was in Peru at the time and returned voluntarily to face Cruz's charges. It turns out Cruz's information was a bit shaky. He based many of the charges against Herrera on statements from a Noriega crony who is in jail on embezzlement charges. The informer later claimed that Cruz coerced him into fingering Herrera in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

The bombshell brought many cries for Cruz's resignation, and now Panamanians are wondering if Cruz and Endara blew the coup story out of proportion to take the heat off their problems, which are monumental.