Despite President Bush's well-publicized desire to get U.S. troops out of Panama by the end of the month, it's likely to be a lot longer than that.
Even as Bush repeated his pullout pledge in his State of the Union speech last week, a crime wave was the hot topic of conversation among residents of Panama City, whose police force literally fell apart when U.S. troops invaded the country. As U.S. troops have pulled out, local criminals have gotten bolder, killing people in their homes and robbing banks in broad daylight. Some Panamanian officials are privately saying that U.S. military police should stay in their country for as long as two years. Their concern is understandable, but a prolonged stay by American troops would create political headaches for Bush and the new government of President Guillermo Endara.
Luckily, there is a short-term answer to the policing problem. About 12,000 U.S. troops are permanently based in the country to defend the Panama Canal. With Manuel Noriega gone, any internal threat to the canal's security presumably has diminished, so some of these troops can temporarily be reassigned to policing duties.
The long-term challenge, remolding Noriega's discredited and demoralized Panama Defense Forces into a trusted police agency, is more problematic. About 12,000 former PDF soldiers have been "rehabilitated" by the Endara government and hired to work for a new Panamanian Public Force. But they lack the expertise, and even the weapons, to do proper police work. The Bush Administration should look into setting up a police-training program that would bring former PDF members, or at least their commanders, to police academies in cities like Los Angeles and Miami for training in their new duties and responsibilities. That could prove more effective than trying to do it on the run and under deadline pressure in Panama.