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Noriega’s Soldiers Learning How to be Traffic Cops

March 2, 1990

SAN MIGUELITO, Panama (AP) _ Downgraded to national police, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega’s once powerful Defense Forces now are learning how to direct traffic, patrol the beat and be polite.

They are being shown the way by U.S. soldiers.

The government of President Guillermo Endara, sworn in at the start of the Dec. 20 U.S. invasion, abolished the military force Noriega had built up on the pretext of defending the Panama Canal when the United States relinquishes its control in 1999.

Rather than turn its 17,000 members out into the ranks of unemployed and gangs of vandals and guerrillas, the government brought 13,000 of them into the new public security unit called the Public Force.

″We have a lot to learn, to evaluate, to overcome the abuses of yesterday,″ said Maj. Luis Puleio, spokesman for the new force.

Feared and hated because arbitrary arrests, torture and general disregard for human rights, the Defense Forces were further discredited when they put up little resistance to the U.S. troops that overthrew Noriega.

Cpl. Guillen Hass, training with U.S. soldiers in San Miguelito, a high- crime suburb along the north edge of Panama City, said he and many others in the program had been police officers there when they were in the Defense Forces - but with a difference.

Before, Hass said, if he saw someone suspicious, he demanded an identification card.

″Now, no, you can’t if you don’t have evidence,″ he said. ″If you do it, they say you can’t and swear at you.″

And instead of taking the person before a judge for being rude, he now has to write a ticket, something he can do only if he has the person’s name.

Mistrust of the Defense Forces was so great after the invasion Panamanians resisted talking to them, preferring to report crimes to U.S. troops.

They are now starting to go to the Panamanians, said 1st Lt. Michael Jones of the 555th Military Police Co. in Ft. Lee, Va., who is in charge of the San Miguelito station.

The training teaches the police officers to treat people with respect, use minimum force, and not carry weapons such as rubber hoses filled with sand.

Teams are now making house-to-house visits to get acquainted with people on their beats and leave the stationhouse phone numbers.

Miguel Obando, an electrician sitting outside his door in the low-income neighborhood of Calidonia, said he has seen a change.

″Before it was a despotic regime. They thought you were talking badly about them or their superior. Now they even greet you and ask permission.″

But the force remains a professional military service, stopping short of being a civil guard on the order of the one in Costa Rica, which has no standing army.

″For the man who has been trained for war, the change has been abrupt,″ said Maj. Puleio, the spokesman. ″We are a subordinated entity. There will not be tanks or combat planes. We have all seen even the last traces of our barracks disappear.″

Soldiers now live at home.

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