Navy Lt. Pete Pedrozo squealed his jeep to a dusty halt and strode into what serves for a jail these days in this small provincial town. With pistol strapped firmly to his side, the judge had come.
The man behind bars had reportedly stabbed his wife in a drunken rage. But the acting local magistrate, a schoolteacher, had refused to rule on the case for fear that any decision might invite bloody retribution.
And so judgment was left to Pedrozo, whose new judicial circuit covers more than 200 square miles on the west bank of the Panama Canal. The Navy lieutenant deliberated, and he ruled: Jose Arauz would be bound over for trial.
In a nation in which violence and political fragility in the aftermath of the American invasion have posed severe tests on those attempting to rebuild the judicial system, Pedrozo and others who represent the temporary U.S. solution see themselves in the role of Wild West magistrates such as Judge Roy Bean, who rode a circuit to enforce the law when no one else would.
"It's frontier justice," said Marine Corps Capt. Barry Cronin, the military governor, in effect, of the region in which Pedrozo acts as chief judge. "But it's a start."
The circuit-riding scheme is part of a larger U.S. military effort to impose a semblance of order on Panama while working gradually to restore full power to civilian authorities. For now, while lightly armed Panamanian police join U.S. machine-gunners on joint patrols and night courts have begun to take on misdemeanor cases, the establishment of a full-scale Panamanian legal system seems unlikely to occur very soon.
"It's really a tall order for them," Army Gen. Joseph Kinzer, the incoming deputy commander of U.S. Army South, said in an interview. "What occurred in the whole operation was that you just neutralized the whole infrastructure. There isn't much left to grab hold of."
Indeed, crime ran rampant in many parts of Panama in the first days after the Dec. 20 invasion. Even after the looting stopped, the American soldiers guarding the streets gave top priority to pursuing suspected members of the Panama Defense Forces, and for more than a week paid scant attention to the slew of reported robberies and other street crimes.
The pace of progress since has varied, with the familiar trappings of justice most visible in the capital, whose return to normalcy was given top priority by the United States. Members of the newly constituted Panamanian police work closely with U.S. military police, while some Panamanian courts have begun to hear minor cases on their own. In a further step, chief prosecutor Rogelio Cruz said last week that he had issued formal criminal complaints against more than 50 former associates of ousted dictator Manuel A. Noriega.
But in the zone of Arraijan, on the far side of the canal from the metropolis, the visage of justice more often bears smears of camouflage paint, and its bearing remains unmistakably that of the U.S. military.
It is Marines, not MPs, who patrol the region, peering coolly from their jeeps and trucks through Vuarnet sunglasses. Although they are joined by members of the newly renamed Panamanian Public Force, that group's near-universal PDF heritage breeds wariness among the populace and relegates its members to a secondary role.
And it is Lt. Pedrozo, and not temporary magistrates like Juana de Gonzales, who decides at least the immediate fate of suspected criminals like Arauz, the accused wife-stabber.
Gonzales, a middle-aged woman who before the U.S. invasion worked for 29 years as an elementary schoolteacher and now is filling in for a Noriega-era judge who fled and another who has been jailed, said she simply felt uncomfortable deciding a case as grave as a stabbing. But Panamanian and U.S. authorities said they believe fear was a factor as well, given the instability of her authority in a town that has not yet even settled on a mayor to run the city under the new regime.
"Old hatreds are a problem," said Capt. Milton Castillo, who had been imprisoned for 21 months at the time of the invasion for his role in a failed March, 1988, coup attempt against Noriega and was appointed last week as the Panamanian Public Force's commander in the Arraijan region. "There is a lot that remains unsettled here."
Echoes of that apprehension raise the very real possibility that Panamanian leaders might be the last to accept the complete withdrawal of American troops back to the United States and back inside U.S. bases that were here before the invasion and will remain, with their primary mission being the defense of the Panama Canal.
"We probably will want them out sooner than the Panamanians," U.S. Ambassador Deane R. Hinton told reporters Saturday. "I hear more people saying keep the troops than get them out."
Another problem that limits Panamanian autonomy is reflected in a situation in this region west of the canal: The regional jail adjoining Castillo's headquarters in La Chorrera, the area's largest town, was destroyed in the U.S. attack. Left with the prospect of housing prisoners in makeshift facilities, such as a small shed that serves as a holding tank in Arraijan, U.S. authorities have opted to dispatch them to a central detention area on Empire Range, a U.S. military area outside Panama City.
That facility is the same one that processed about 4,300 suspected former PDF members in the aftermath of the invasion, permitting nearly all of them to return to active duty. About 400 of the prisoners of war remain behind bars, 100 of them in secure cells at Ft. Clayton, a U.S. Army base near Panama City. Only a few of the latter have been permitted to see visitors, an Army lawyer said last week. They face continued interrogation by military intelligence experts before being turned over to Panamanian prosecutors.
Ultimately, the common criminals also will face Panamanian justice; there are no plans for U.S. military magistrates to conduct proceedings more extensive than pretrial hearings. But both U.S. and Panamanian authorities concede that it could be months before that process is fully under way.
In the meantime, U.S. military commanders are prepared for a time to continue acting as police and prosecutor and judge. "Right now, it's just holding down the fort," said Capt. David de Silva, a Green Beret assigned to oversee the transition in La Chorrera.
For his part, Lt. Pedrozo--who owes his incarnation as circuit judge in the tropics to his Ohio State law degree and the fact that he is the only Navy lawyer in Panama--says he is eager to see the Panamanian magistrates take his job away from him.
"I've enjoyed it," he said. "But I'm ready to get out of this business just as soon as they're ready to do the job."