They are young, unemployed and violent, prone to prowl the streets looking for trouble.
After creating them last year, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega touted the Batallon Dignidad , or Dignity Battalion, as a youth group of patriotic Panamanians. Other observers contend that they are armed thugs embraced by Noriega because they, unlike his military forces, can be counted on to kill civilians without reservation. Today, they stand as a leading obstacle to U.S. efforts to crush the last vestiges of Noriega’s power.
Earlier this year they drew international attention by brutally beating opposition candidates in Panama’s presidential election campaign. In the most infamous incident, the group savagely bloodied vice presidential candidate Guillermo (Billy) Ford as foreign television cameras recorded the incident. Some of the battalion members who participated wore crimson T-shirts with white letters that identified their organization.
Now that U.S. forces have driven Noriega out of office, these loosely organized bands of street toughs roam through the city taking hostages and menacing citizens.
“They claim they’re defending the dignity of the nation in the face of Yankee imperialism,” said Richard Millett, a Latin American history professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Ill. “They are like the Ton Ton Macoutes in Haiti. Their purpose (is) to terrorize the domestic political opposition.”
The Dignity Battalion, in fact, is the most notorious of about two dozen similar groups created by Noriega. Total membership in all the groups is estimated at 7,000 to 10,000, according to officials. Estimates of Dignity Battalion membership range from hundreds to a few thousand.
“They are good at fighting people who are unarmed,” said Adm. Ted Sheafer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “But in fighting uniformed troops, they are not very good,” he added, referring to their “inadequate” military training.
Millett and other observers said that little is known about these groups because they are a relatively new development in Panamanian history. And because they operate as Noriega’s bodyguards and street enforcers, it is difficult to get close. U.S. military officials have said that the paramilitary groups are composed mostly of street-smart men from poor and working-class neighborhoods, ranging in age from early teens to late 20s.
Millett said he is not optimistic that the U.S. military can find and dissuade all of the battalion members from carrying on their activities now that Noriega no longer controls the government.
“Most of them will melt back into the population,” he predicted. “But criminals always pose a long-term problem. You can put enough MPs on the streets and they won’t run rampant. Eventually the MPs will be gone, and they’ll still be there. It’s a problem made worse by high unemployment and class and racial divisions in the country.
“The problem is made worse yet by the fact that the Endara government was installed by American bayonets,” Millett said, referring to newly inaugurated President Guillermo Endara.
“What do you expect?” asked Millett. “If you give your political supporters the license to beat up anyone they don’t like and to extort from them, you’ll get a lot of volunteers, especially if the economy is going to hell.”
Noriega was able to form the Dignity Battalion by “capitalizing on a segment of society--unemployed male youths--and give them something to do in the name of patriotism for Panama,” said Jennie Lincoln, a member of former President Jimmy Carter’s delegation to oversee last May’s abortive presidential elections in Panama.
Lincoln said that she doubts that battalion members have any well-conceived political philosophy to support their behavior.
“It’s entertainment for them,” she said. “I do not see the Dignity Battalion as a patriotic force. I see it as a violent youth gang. The violence was not only sanctioned, but promoted, by Manuel Noriega.”