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Panama's fragile sovereignty has been undermined by the spillover effects of the civil war fought in neighboring Colombia and the trafficking in weapons, drugs, and people that is widespread throughout the region. Emblematic of the use of Panamanian territory for illegal purposes was the discovery of a cache of several thousand weapons and ammunition en route from Nicaragua to Colombia. An agreement was signed with the United States allowing for joint patrols and the arrest of violators. Several polls conducted by the newspaper La Prensa early in the year gave failing job ratings to the government, leaving no branch unscathed. Governability is in question as armed violence has increased significantly in Panama in the past several years. Weekend police checkpoints are now commonplace both in Panama City and in crime-ridden Colon, although the country remains relatively safe when compared to many of its regional neighbors. Discrimination against darker-skinned Panamanians, especially those from Colon, is widespread.
Panama was part of Colombia until 1903, when a U.S.-supported revolt resulted in the proclamation of an independent Republic of Panama. A period of weak civilian rule ended with a 1968 military coup that brought General Omar Torrijos to power. After the signing of the 1977 canal treaties with the United States, Torrijos promised democratization. The 1972 constitution had been revised to provide for the direct election of a president and a legislative assembly for five-year terms. After Torrijos's death in 1981, General Manuel Noriega emerged as Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) chief; he subsequently rigged the 1984 election that brought to power the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), then the political arm of the PDF. The Democratic Alliance of Civic Opposition (ADOC) won the 1989 election, but Noriega annulled the vote and declared himself head of state. He was removed during a U.S. military invasion, and ADOC's Guillermo Endara became president.
In May 1999, Mireya Moscoso, the widow of three-time president Arnulfo Arias and herself an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1994, won 44.8 percent of the vote, more than 7 percent above the amount garnered by her rival, Martin Torrijos, son of General Omar Torrijos, as the head of a PRD-led coalition. In the years following the U.S. handover in 1999, the Panama Canal continued to operate smoothly, although the departure of remaining U.S. troops and the closure of U.S. military bases meant the loss to Panama of some $250 million in revenues.
Repeated incursions into Panamanian territory by Colombian guerrillas continued to spark concerns in the region about the spillover effects of Colombia's civil war. Since being invaded by the United States in 1989, Panama has had no military. It relies on the police to provide both internal security and defense of its borders. Dozens of confrontations between armed Colombian groups and the Panamanian police, who suffered several injuries as a result of the fighting, raised questions about whether the latter are up to the challenge provided by the seasoned Colombians.
Panama's citizens can change their government democratically. The 1999 national elections were considered free and fair by international observers. The constitution guarantees freedom of political and civic organization. In early 1999, Panama's largest political parties agreed to ban anonymous campaign contributions in an effort to stem the infiltration of drug money into the political process. The judicial system, headed by a Supreme Court, was revamped in 1990. It remains overworked, however, and its administration is inefficient, politicized, and prone to corruption. An unwieldy criminal code and a surge in cases, many against former soldiers and officials of the military period, complicate the judicial process.
The Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) was dismantled after 1989, and the military was formally abolished in 1994. However, the civilian-run Public Force (the national police) that replaced the PDF, although accountable to civilian authorities through a publicly disclosed budget, is poorly disciplined and corrupt. Like the country's prison guards, officers frequently use "excessive force." The penal system is marked by violent disturbances in decrepit facilities packed with up to eight times their intended capacity. About two-thirds of prisoners face delays of about 18 months in having their cases heard.
Panama's media are a raucous assortment of radio and television stations, daily newspapers, and weekly publications. Restrictive media laws dating back to the regime of General Manuel Noriega remain on the books. The law permits officials to jail without trial anyone who defames the government.
Labor unions are well organized. However, labor rights were diluted in 1995 when President Ernesto Perez Balladares pushed labor code revisions through congress.
There is free access to the Internet. Academic freedom is generally honored.
Since 1993, indigenous groups have protested the encroachment of illegal settlers on Indian lands and delays by the government in formally demarcating the boundaries of those lands. Indian communities do enjoy, however, a large degree of autonomy and self-government. Violence against women and children is widespread and common.