Omar Torrijos

Last updated
Maximum Leader

Omar Torrijos
Omar Torrijos 1977.jpg
Maximum Leader of
the Panamanian Revolution
In office
1972 July 31, 1981
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byPosition abolished
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
Omar Efraín Torrijos Herrera

February 13, 1929
Santiago, Panama
DiedJuly 31, 1981(1981-07-31) (aged 52)
near Penonomé, Panama
Resting placeTorrijos Mausoleum
Amador, Panama City, Panama
Political party Democratic Revolutionary Party (1979–1981)
Spouse(s)Raquel Pauzner de Torrijos
OccupationMilitary Officer
Military service
AllegianceFlag of Panama.svg  Panama

Omar Efraín Torrijos Herrera (February 13, 1929  July 31, 1981), more commonly known as Omar Torrijos, was the Commander of the Panamanian National Guard and the de facto dictator of Panama from 1968 to 1981, establishing the left-wing military dictatorship that would last for 21 years. Torrijos was never officially the president of Panama, but instead held titles including "Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution" and "Supreme Chief of Government." Torrijos took power in a coup d'état and instituted a number of social reforms and his regime was considered socialist.[ citation needed ]

In law and government, de facto describes practices that exist in reality, even though they are not officially recognized by laws. It is commonly used to refer to what happens in practice, in contrast with de jure, which refers to things that happen according to law.

Panama Republic in Central America

Panama, officially the Republic of Panama, is a country in Central America, bordered by Costa Rica to the west, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The capital and largest city is Panama City, whose metropolitan area is home to nearly half the country's 4 million people.

Coup détat Sudden deposition of a government

A coup d'état, also known as a putsch (German:), a golpe de estado (Spanish/Portuguese), or simply as a coup, means the overthrow of an existing government; typically, this refers to an illegal, unconstitutional seizure of power by a dictator, the military, or a political faction.


Torrijos is best known for negotiating the 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties that eventually gave Panama full sovereignty over the Panama Canal. The two treaties guaranteed that Panama would gain control of the Panama Canal after 1999, ending the control of the canal that the U.S. had exercised since 1903. On December 31, 1999, the final phase of the treaty, the US relinquished control of the Panama Canal and all areas in what had been the Panama Canal Zone.

Torrijos–Carter Treaties Two treaties signed by Panama and the United States in 1977, concerning the Panama Canal

The Torrijos–Carter Treaties are two treaties signed by the United States and Panama in Washington, D.C., on September 7, 1977, which superseded the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903. The treaties guaranteed that Panama would gain control of the Panama Canal after 1999, ending the control of the canal that the U.S. had exercised since 1903. The treaties are named after the two signatories, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Commander of Panama's National Guard, General Omar Torrijos.

Panama Canal Large artificial waterway in the Republic of Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans

The Panama Canal is an artificial 82 km (51 mi) waterway in Panama that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a conduit for maritime trade. Canal locks are at each end to lift ships up to Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal, 26 m (85 ft) above sea level, and then lower the ships at the other end. The original locks are 34 m (110 ft) wide. A third, wider lane of locks was constructed between September 2007 and May 2016. The expanded canal began commercial operation on June 26, 2016. The new locks allow transit of larger, post-Panamax ships, capable of handling more cargo.

Panama Canal Zone Former unincorporated territory of the United States surrounded by the Republic of Panama

The Panama Canal Zone was an unincorporated territory of the United States from 1903 to 1979, centered on the Panama Canal and surrounded by the Republic of Panama. The zone consisted of the canal and an area generally extending five miles (8.0 km) on each side of the centerline, excluding Panama City and Colón, which otherwise would have been partly within the limits of the Zone. Its border spanned three of Panama's provinces. When reservoirs were created to assure a steady supply of water for the locks, those lakes were included within the Zone.

His son Martín Torrijos was elected president and served from 2004 to 2009.

Martín Torrijos President of Panama

Martín Erasto Torrijos Espino is a Panamanian politician who was President of Panama from 2004 to 2009.


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]

Colombia Country in South America

Colombia, officially the Republic of Colombia, is a sovereign state largely situated in the north of South America, with land, and territories in North America. Colombia is bounded on the north by the Caribbean Sea and the west by the Pacific. It comprises thirty-two departments, with the capital in Bogotá.

San Salvador Capital of El Salvador

San Salvador is the capital and the most populous city of El Salvador and its eponymous department. It is the country's political, cultural, educational and financial center. The Metropolitan Area of San Salvador which comprises the capital itself and 13 of its municipalities has a population of 2,404,097.


Omar Torrijos (right) with farmers in the Panamanian countryside. The Torrijos government was well known for its policies of land redistribution. Omar Torrijos with Panamanian farmers.jpg
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. Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos signing the Panama Canal Treaty.jpg
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 Panamá , 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]

Arnulfo Arias President of Panama

Arnulfo Arias Madrid was a politician from Panama, doctor, and writer who served as the President of Panama from 1940 to 1941, again from 1949 to 1951, and finally for eleven days in October 1968.

<i>La Estrella de Panamá</i>

La Estrella de Panamá is the oldest daily newspaper in Panamá.

A government mouthpiece is a pejorative term for media outlets which are widely viewed as being an accessory to an oppressive government as well as its propaganda. Such media networks are typically criticized for taking government statements at face value without challenging their positions. Critics of such networks may criticize such networks as being a mimicker or parrot of whatever the government may say. Such lack of media independence is subsequently said to result in media that is biased, and hence cannot be trusted.

For him, the overthrown government "was a marriage between the armed forces, the oligarchy and the bad priests; the soldier carried his rifle to silence the people and forbid "the scoundrel" to disrespect the ruling class. "Explaining that his revolution acts "for the poor, not for the owners", he had a new Constitution, an agrarian reform, a Labour Code adopted and recognized the workers' and peasants' unions.

Torrijos introduced a populist policy, with the inauguration of schools and the creation of jobs, the redistribution of agricultural land (which was his government's most popular measure). The reforms were accompanied by a major public works programme. He also faced North American multinationals, redistributing 180,000 hectares of uncultivated land. In February 1974, following OPEC's model for oil, He attempted to form the Union of Banana Exporting Countries with the other Central American States to respond to the influence of these multinationals, but did not obtain their support. Its policy promoted the emergence of a middle class and the representation of indigenous communities.

Multinational corporation Corporation operating in multiple countries

A multinational corporation (MNC) or worldwide enterprise is a corporate organization that owns or controls production of goods or services in at least one country other than its home country. Black's Law Dictionary suggests that a company or group should be considered a multinational corporation if it derives 25% or more of its revenue from out-of-home-country operations. A multinational corporation can also be referred to as a multinational enterprise (MNE), a transnational enterprise (TNE), a transnational corporation (TNC), an international corporation, or a stateless corporation. There are subtle but real differences between these three labels, as well as multinational corporation and worldwide enterprise.

OPEC international organization of petroleum-exporting countries

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries is an intergovernmental organization of 14 nations, founded in 1960 in Baghdad by the first five members, and headquartered since 1965 in Vienna, Austria. As of September 2018, the then 14 member countries accounted for an estimated 44 percent of global oil production and 81.5 percent of the world's "proven" oil reserves, giving OPEC a major influence on global oil prices that were previously determined by the so called "Seven Sisters" grouping of multinational oil companies.

Indigenous peoples Ethnic group descended from and identified with the original inhabitants of a given region

Indigenous peoples, also known as First peoples, Aboriginal peoples or Native peoples, are ethnic groups who are the original owners and caretakers of a given region, in contrast to groups that have settled, occupied or colonized the area more recently. Groups are usually described as indigenous when they maintain traditions or other aspects of an early culture that is associated with a given region. Not all indigenous peoples share this characteristic, as many have adopted substantial elements of a colonizing culture, such as dress, religion or language. Indigenous peoples may be settled in a given region (sedentary) or exhibit a nomadic lifestyle across a large territory, but they are generally historically associated with a specific territory on which they depend. Indigenous societies are found in every inhabited climate zone and continent of the world.

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,[ citation needed ][ clarification needed ] as well as independent student and labor leaders.[ citation needed ][ clarification needed ] The reforms were accompanied by an ambitious public works program, financed by foreign banks.

In international politics, Torrijos supported Chilean President Salvador Allende and welcomed refugees after the 1973 coup d'état. He helped the Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua and other rebel forces in El Salvador, Guatemala, and renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba.

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

An admirer of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito and inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal, he embarked on a fight against the United States to gain Panama's sovereignty. In 1973, in the absence of progress in negotiations with Washington, he tried to involve the UN: "We have never been, are not and will never be an associated state, colony or protectorate, and we do not intend to add a star to the United States flag". Washington vetoed the adopted resolution.

Torrijos 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 called 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 defuse opposition from labor unions as well as influential oligarchs. He reintroduced the traditional parties by modifying the 1972 constitution and set elections for 1984. During this time, in 1979, Torrijos organized the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) which loosely linked to Socialist International ideals and represented a melange of social classes, namely the internationally affiliated bourgeoisie. Due to the incoherent nature of this organization, Torrijos was the pivotal figure in maintaining a stable vision between the left and right tendencies within it. His death in 1981, before the transition could be completed, caused a political crisis in the country which led to 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 December 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. Mausoleo de Omar Torrijos (Amador - Panama).jpg
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 fine 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's 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 suspicious 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 the trial, because the presiding judge agreed with the U.S. government's claim that their public mention would violate the Classified Information Procedures Act. In 1981, TASS also claimed that the U.S. had caused Torrijos's death. [10]

More recently, John Perkins 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 by CIA-organized operatives. [11] 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 whose construction would exclude American firms such as Bechtel and Stone and Webster. Manuel Noriega, in America's Prisoner, 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.

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. [12] [13] [14]

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." [15]

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.

See also

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1981 Panamanian Air Force Twin Otter crash

The 1981 Panamanian Air Force Twin Otter crash occurred on July 31, 1981, when a de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter of the Panamanian Air Force, with identity code FAP-205, crashed at Marta Hill, in the community of Coclesito, in adverse weather conditions while on its final approach to the airport. All seven people on board, including General Omar Torrijos Herrera, who led the country's military dictatorship between 1968 and 1981, were killed.

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  1. Harding II, Robert C. (2001). Military Foundations of Panamanian Politics. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. ISBN   0-7658-0075-6.
  2. 1 2 3 Grove, Brandon (2005). Behind Embassy Walls. Missouri: University of Missouri Press. ISBN   0-8262-1573-4.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Koster, R.M.; Guillermo Sánchez (1990). In the Time of the Tyrants: Panama, 1968-1990 . New York City: Norton. ISBN   978-0-393-02696-2.
  4. 1 2 Buckman, Robert T. (2007). The World Today Series: Latin America 2007. Harpers Ferry, West Virginia: Stryker-Post Publications. ISBN   978-1-887985-84-0.
  5. 1 2 Priestley, George (1986). Military Government and Popular Participation in Panama. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc. ISBN   0-8133-7045-0.
  6. 1 2 Greene, Graham (1984). Getting to Know the General. London: The Bodley Head Ltd. ISBN   0-370-30808-5.
  7. (in 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. "Soviet "Active Measures": Forgery, Disinformation, Political Operations" (PDF). Inside the Cold War. United States Department of State Bureau of Public Affairs. October 1981.
  11. Perkins, John. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2004. See pages 156–157 regarding Roldós' alleged assassination.
  12. Colonel Requests Investigation into Omar Torrijos Death. Panama Digest, March 2, 2013.
  13. The CIA Used Manuel Noriega to Assassinate Panamanian Leader Omar Torrijos. August 4, 2009.
  14. US Responsible For Death Of Omar Torrijos, - Former Militar. Newsroom Panama, Feb. 18, 2013.
  15. Holly Sklar. Washington's War on Nicaragua (South End Press), p. 24.

Further reading

Military offices
Preceded by
New Title
Military Leader of Panama
Succeeded by
Florencio Flores
Party political offices
Preceded by
Position established
Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution
Succeeded by
Position abolished