Omar Torrijos

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Omar Torrijos
Omar Efraín Torrijos Herrera (February 13, 1929 - August 1, 1981) was a Panamanian army officer and military ruler of Panama from 1968 to 1981. Torrijos was often referred to in the American press as the military strongman of Panama. A son of Torrijos, Martín Torrijos Espino, won the Presidential election on 2 May 2004 and took office on September 1, 2004.


Born in Santiago in the province of Veraguas, the sixth of twelve children. He was educated at the local Juan Demóstenes Arosemena school and won a scholarship to the military academy in San Salvador. He graduated with a commission as a second lieutenant. He joined the Panamanian army, the National Guard (Guardia Nacional), in 1952. He was promoted to captain in 1956 and studied further at the School of the Americas.

Military dictator

He had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel by 1966 and in 1968 he and colonel Boris Martínez led a successful coup d'etat against the democratically-elected president, Arnulfo Arias. In the internal power struggle that followed Torrijos emerged victorious - he exiled Martínez in 1969, made himself a brigadier general and survived an attempted coup from his junior officers. Torrijos further consolidated his power by taking authoritarian measures such as persecuting leaders of student and labor groups, dissolving all political parties and the legislature, closing down independent media outlets, and conducting a ruthless anti-guerrilla campaign in Western Panama. Under these conditions, the regime called for controlled election of an assembly with a single opposition member, which approved a Constitution that granted Torrijos absolute civil and military powers in 1972.

Torrijos was regarded by his supporters as the first Panamanian leader to represent the majority population of Panama, which is poor, Spanish-speaking, and of mixed heritage (of indigenous, Hispanic, and African descent) -- as opposed to the light-skinned and often English-speaking social elite, often referred to as rabiblancos ("white-tails"), who dominated the commerce and political life of Panama. Torrijos instituted a range of social and economic reforms to improve the lot of the poor, redistributed agricultural land and persecuted the richest and most powerful families in the country, as well as independent student and labor leaders. The reforms were accompanied by an ambitious public works program, financed by foreign banks, and plagued by corruption and nepotism, which turned Panama into one of the countries with highest per capita public indebtedness. He was intolerant of political opposition, however, and many opponents were imprisoned, exiled or even killed. One such well-publicized incident was the 1971 kidnapping and disappearance of Héctor Gallegos, a populist Catholic priest.

He also negotiated the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, signed on September 7, 1977. These treaties gave Panamanians sovereignty over the canal zone, with a gradual increase in their control over it, leading to complete control after the year 2000. The United States however, retained the permanent right to protect the neutrality of the canal. In 1997, General Manuel Noriega revealed in his book, America's Prisoner, that Torrijos planned to sabotage the canal, in the event that the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the treaties. The contingency plan was code-named "Huele a Quemado" (Literal translation: "It smells like something's burning.") According to Noriega, Panamanian military specialists, including explosives experts and frogmen, infiltrated the U.S. security cordon and lived for two months, posing as peasants and fishermen. They prepared to assault the canal and the Panama-Colón railway with explosives and rocket launchers upon Torrijos' signal, to be broadcast as a coded message over Radio Liberty on the program of popular radio personality Danilo Caballero. When the news came that the treaty had been ratified by the U.S. Senate, the message to stand down -- "Boleros de Ayer has been cancelled" -- was broadcast.

In 1978 when his term as Chief of Government ended he did not seek its extension but retired and planned for a return of full civil authority by 1984. He remained commander of the powerful National Guard while his follower Aristides Royo was a figurehead president. When Torrijos was killed in a plane crash, he was succeeded as by Florencio Flores Aguilar who assumed command of the National Guard but he was soon replaced by Rubén Darío Paredes.


Torrijos' death generated charges and speculation that he was the victim of an assassination plot. For instance, in pre-trial hearings in Miami May, 1991 Noriega's attorney Frank Rubino was quoted as saying "General Noriega has in his possession documents showing attempts to assassinate General Noriega and Mr. Torrijos by agencies of the United States". Those documents were not allowed as evidence in trial, because the presiding judge agreed with the government's claim that their public mention would violate the Classified Information Procedures Act. More recently, former businessman John Perkins [1] (, alleges in his book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, that Torrijos was assassinated by American interests, who had a bomb planted aboard his aircraft. The alleged motive is that some American business leaders and politicians strongly opposed the negotiations between Torrijos and a group of Japanese businessmen led by Shigeo Nagano, who were promoting the idea of a new, larger, sea-level canal for Panama. Manuel Noriega, in America's Prisoner, confirms that these negotiations had evoked an extremely unfavorable response from American circles.

External links

En español:


Austin American Statesman, May 1, 1991, U.S. agencies tried to slay Noriega, lawyer tells court.

es:Omar Torrijos


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