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Omar Torrijos

Maximum Leader
Omar Torrijos
Maximum Leader of
the Panamanian Revolution
In office
Preceded by New Title
Succeeded by None
Military Leader of Panama
In office
October 11, 1968 – July 31, 1981
President José María Pinilla (1968-69)
Demetrio Lakas Bahas (1969-78)
Aristides Royo (1978-82)
Preceded by Arnulfo Arias (President)
Succeeded by Florencio Flores Aguilar
Personal details
Born February 13, 1929
Santiago, Panama
Died July 31, 1981(1981-07-31) (aged 52)
near Penonomé, Panama
Political party Democratic Revolutionary Party (1979-1981)
Spouse(s) Raquel Pauzner de Torrijos
Occupation Military Officer
Religion Roman Catholic

Omar Efraín Torrijos Herrera (February 13, 1929 – July 31, 1981) was the Commander of the Panamanian and National Guard and the de facto dictator of Panama from 1968 to 1981. Torrijos was never officially the president of Panama, but instead held titles including "Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution" and "Supreme Chief of Government." Despite taking power in a coup d'état, Torrijos instituted a number of social reforms and his regime was considered progressive.

Torrijos is best known for negotiating the 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties that eventually gave Panama full sovereignty over the Panama Canal, at noon on December 31, 1999. His son Martín Torrijos was elected president and served from 2004 to 2009.


  • Background 1
  • Career 2
    • Panama Canal 2.1
    • Political transition 2.2
  • Personal life 3
  • Death 4
    • Speculations on cause of crash 4.1
  • Famous quotes 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Torrijos was born in Santiago in the province of Veraguas, the sixth of eleven children. His father, José Maria Torrijos, was originally from Colombia, and was employed as a teacher. He was educated at the local Juan Demóstenes Arosemena School and, at eighteen, 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 then to major in 1960. He took a cadet course at the School of the Americas in 1965. He became the Executive Secretary of the National Guard in 1966.[1]


Omar Torrijos (right) with farmers in the Panamanian countryside. The Torrijos government was well known for its policies of land redistribution.
President Carter shakes hands with General Torrijos of Panama after signing the Panama Canal Treaty.

He had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel by 1966. Due to accusations of his involvement in election frauds, Torrijos was ordered to El Salvador in 1968 as a military attaché.[2] It was during this year however that his close friend in the Guardia, Major Boris Martínez and Coronel Jose Humberto Ramos (godfather of his son Omar) initiated a meditated and successful coup d'état against the recently elected president of Panama, Arnulfo Arias, after almost eleven days in office. Having received news of the coup while in the Canal Zone, Torrijos and a few officers including Demetrio Lakas sought to re-establish some form of civilian rule, even attempting to install Arnulfo's vice-president, Raul Arango as the new president, much to Martínez's dismay.[3] Although a two-man junta was appointed, Martinez and Torrijos were the true leaders from the beginning. Soon after the coup, Torrijos was promoted to full colonel and named commandant of the National Guard. They barred all political activity and shut down the legislature. They also seized control of three newspapers owned by Arias' brother, Harmodio and blackmailed the owners of the country's oldest newspaper, La Estrella de Panama, into becoming a government mouthpiece.

With enough opposition against Martinez including from the United States, Torrijos ousted and exiled Martinez and Jose H. Ramos to Miami on February 23, 1969, nearly four months after the initial coup.[3]

In 1972, the regime held a controlled election of an Assembly of Community Representatives, with a single opposition member. The new assembly approved a new Constitution and elected Demetrio Lakas as president. However, the new document made Torrijos the actual head of government, with near-absolute powers for six years.

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– as opposed to the light-skinned social elite, often referred to as rabiblancos ("white-tails"), who had long dominated the commerce and political life of Panama. He opened many schools and created new job opportunities for those less fortunate. Some say he even spent his weekends giving a thousand dollars to random people and causes.[2] 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.

In 1978, he stepped down as head of the government, but remained de facto ruler of the country while another one of his followers, Aristides Royo was a figurehead president. He also restored some civil liberties; U.S. President Jimmy Carter had told him that the Senate would never approve the Canal treaties unless Torrijos made some effort to liberalize his rule.[4]

Panama Canal

Torrijos also negotiated the Torrijos-Carter Treaties over the Panama Canal, signed on September 7, 1977. These treaties passed United States sovereignty over the canal zone to Panama, with a gradual increase in their control over it, leading to complete control on Dec 31, 1999. The United States however, retained the permanent right to protect what they would as the neutrality of the canal, allowing U.S. administration of the canal as well as military intervention through the now-legalized U.S. bases in Panama. These aspects of the treaty fell short from nationalistic goals and the ratification ceremony at Fort Clayton was somewhat of an embarrassment for Torrijos. He was noticeably drunk during the ceremony; his speech was badly slurred and he had to brace himself against the podium to keep from falling.[4][5]

Political transition

With pressure from the Carter administration as well as from economic depression, Torrijos sought to appease public distress and diffuse opposition from labor unions as well as influential oligarchies. He reintroduced the traditional parties by modifying the 1972 constitution and set elections for 1984. During this time, in 1979, Torrijos organized the Manuel Noriega coming to power as military ruler.[3][5]

Personal life

Omar Torrijos has been generally regarded as a personable man though varying accounts appear contradictory. He married Raquel Pauzner in 1954 and had three children. Having spent most of his time with campesinos during the weekends, he had little time to spare for his children. He had three primary residences: a beach house at Farallón, a house at Coclesito, and a house on Fiftieth Street in Panama City, the last of which his family lived a few blocks from. According to first-hand accounts by Torrijos's friend and guest, Graham Greene, Torrijos had a mistress who was studying sociology in the U.S.[6]

Torrijos has been described as a heavy drinker who enjoyed Havana cigars and fine women.[3] During a meeting with Ambassador Brandon Grove in the December of 1969, Torrijos challenged him to a game of pinball and later said, “I’m not an intellectual but a man of horse sense, like a farmer”.[2] Torrijos relished in the opinions others had of his colleagues and acquaintances especially if they coincided with his own. He was humble and respectful as he listened to the plights of middle and lower-class people.[6]


Omar Torrijos Mausoleum in Amador, Panama City, in the former Canal Zone.

General Torrijos died at the age of 52 when his aircraft, a DeHavilland Twin Otter (DHC-6), registered as FAP-205 of the Panamanian Air Force, crashed at Cerro Marta, in Coclesito, near Penonomé, Panama. The aircraft disappeared from radar during severe weather, but due to the limited nature of Panama's radar coverage at the time, the plane was not reported missing for nearly a day. The crash site was located several days later, and the body of General Torrijos was recovered by a Special Forces team in the first few days of August.[7] Four aides and two pilots also died in the crash.[8] His death caused national mourning around the country, especially in the poor areas. Following a large state funeral, Torrijos' body was briefly buried in a cemetery in Casco Viejo (the Old City of Panama), before being moved to a mausoleum in the former Canal Zone on Fort Amador near Panama City. He was succeeded as commander of the National Guard and de facto leader of Panama by Florencio Flores, who later gave way to Rubén Darío Paredes. The place where the plane crashed is now a national park and his house in Coclesito is now a museum.

Speculations on cause of crash

Torrijos's death generated charges and speculation that he was the victim of an assassination plot. For instance, in pre-trial hearings in Miami in May 1991, Manuel 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." [9] Those documents were not allowed as evidence in trial, because the presiding judge agreed with the U.S. government's claim that their public mention would violate the Classified Information Procedures Act.

More recently, former businessman

Military offices
Preceded by
New Title
Military Leader of Panama
Succeeded by
Florencio Flores
Party political offices
Preceded by
New Title
Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution
1972 - 1981
Succeeded by
  • Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Panama, by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Organization of American States, 1978. The Commission concluded that there was a significant improvement in the situation of human rights from 1972 onwards.
  • Panama The Government of Torrijos and the National Guard. An assessment of the career of Omar Torrijos in the context of Panamanian history.
  • Web Site of author John Perkins.
  • His Man in Panama. By Alan Riding. New York Times, November 4, 1984. A review of Graham Greene's Getting to Know the General.
  • Torrijos: The Man and the Myth. Americas Society exhibition in NYC . Photographs of Graciela Iturbide, Jan. 31 - May 5, 2008.

External links

  1. ^ Harding II, Robert C. (2001). Military Foundations of Panamanian Politics. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.  
  2. ^ a b c Grove, Brandon (2005). Behind Embassy Walls. Missouri: University of Missouri Press.  
  3. ^ a b c d Koster, R.M.; Guillermo Sánchez (1990). In the Time of the Tyrants: Panama, 1968-1990. New York City: Norton.  
  4. ^ a b Buckman, Robert T. (2007). The World Today Series: Latin America 2007. Harpers Ferry, West Virginia: Stryker-Post Publications.  
  5. ^ a b Priestley, George (1986). Military Government and Popular Participation in Panama. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc.  
  6. ^ a b Greene, Graham (1984). Getting to Know the General. London: The Bodley Head Ltd.  
  7. ^ (Spanish) Panamá descarta un sabotaje en la muerte de Torrijos. By Jesús Ceberio. El País (Spain), August 15, 1981.
  8. ^ ASN Aircraft accident de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter 300 FAP-205 Coclecito:
  9. ^ "Noriega Strategy Unfolds Attorneys Hope To Drag Past U.S. Role Into Trial." By Warren Richey. Sun Sentinel, May 1, 1991.
  10. ^ Perkins, John. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2004. See pages 156-157 regarding Roldós' alleged assassination.
  11. ^ Colonel Requests Investigation into Omar Torrijos Death. Panama Digest, March 2, 2013.
  12. ^ The CIA Used Manuel Noriega to Assassinate Panamanian Leader Omar Torrijos. August 4, 2009.
  13. ^ US Responsible For Death Of Omar Torrijos, - Former Militar. Newsroom Panama, Feb. 18, 2013.
  14. ^ Holly Sklar. Washington's War on Nicaragua (South End Press), p. 24.
  15. ^ a b Omar Torrijos Herrera Quotes. Brainy Quote
  16. ^ PANAMA: A Historic No. Time Magazine, April 2, 1973.
  17. ^ a b The Nation: Ceding the Canal-Slowly. Time Magazine, August 22, 1977.
  18. ^ PANAMA: Omar v. the Canal Zone. Time Magazine, March 19, 1973.


See also

  • "I don't like Communism because it hands out wealth through rationing books.”[15]
  • "You may rest assured that in our negotiations with the U.S. you will always find us standing on our feet or dead, but never on our knees. Never!"[16]
  • "I don't want to go into history; I want to go into the Canal Zone.”
  • "If I fall, pick up the flag, kiss it, and keep on going.”[15]
  • "Those that consult more, make fewer mistakes."
  • "In the foolishness lies the danger."
  • "The (Panama Canal) treaty is like a little pebble which we shall be able to carry in our shoe for 23 years, and that is better than the stake we have had to carry in our hearts." [17]
  • The Canal Zone is "a tumor that must go through the operating room."[18]
  • Satisfying all parties (on a new Panama Canal Treaty) would be about as difficult as pleasing the "princess who had big feet and asked a shoemaker to find her a shoe small on the outside and large inside."[17]
  • Telling the Panamanian poor people "Here are the children of the revolution!"
  • Addressing Panamanian peasants "Very foolish you will be if you let them take away the rights I have given you", referring to the landowners.
  • "We would always be under The Pentagon's protective umbrella", referring to the Panama Canal Treaty.

Omar Torrijos is well known in Panama for his famous quotes. Here are some examples:

Famous quotes

Antipathy within the Reagan administration can also be adduced from Torrijos's sympathy (and rumoured support) for Nicaragua's Sandinista National Liberation Front, whose popular revolution in mid-1979 had toppled the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship.

Torrijos died shortly after the inauguration of US President Ronald Reagan, just two months after Ecuadorian president Jaime Roldós died in strikingly similar circumstances. Like other Republicans when the canal treaty came before the U.S. Senate, Reagan alleged that Democratic U.S. president Jimmy Carter had 'given away' a U.S. asset—the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone. In the 1976 Republican primaries, Reagan claimed regarding the canal: "We built it, we paid for it, it's ours, and we should tell Torrijos and company that we are going to keep it."[14]

Former Noriega chief of staff Colonel Roberto Diaz, a cousin of Torrijos, as recently as 2013 has several times accused the United States and Noriega of involvement in Torrijos's death and called for investigations.[11][12][13]

, claims that these negotiations had evoked an extremely unfavorable response from American circles. However, the documents with the investigations about the cause of the accident went missing during the U.S. invasion of Panama on December 20, 1989 and have never been found. America's Prisoner, in Manuel Noriega 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. [10]

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