Omar Torrijos Ousts Arias in Panama

Omar Torrijos Herrera unseated Arnulfo Arias as president of Panama, instituting a period of authoritarian rule granting himself absolute civil and military powers. Still, Torrijos was the first president of Panama to represent the mixed heritage of his country, and he introduced social and economic reforms aimed at helping the lower classes. He renegotiated the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty with the United States and retired from formal office in 1978.

Summary of Event

On October 11, 1968, a group of Panamanian National Guard officers overthrew the democratically elected government of the country. The coup marked the first time in Panama’s history that the country had experienced a forcible military takeover, with the military itself retaining the reins of government. The seizure was not the action of a single strongman (or caudillo, as such a leader is described in Spanish). It was instead an institutional movement, projecting the political interests of a group of the National Guard’s top military leaders. Panamanian coup of 1968
Revolutions and coups;Panama
[kw]Omar Torrijos Ousts Arias in Panama (Oct. 11, 1968)
[kw]Arias in Panama, Omar Torrijos Ousts (Oct. 11, 1968)
[kw]Panama, Omar Torrijos Ousts Arias in (Oct. 11, 1968)
Panamanian coup of 1968
Revolutions and coups;Panama
[g]Latin America;Oct. 11, 1968: Omar Torrijos Ousts Arias in Panama[09980]
[g]Panama;Oct. 11, 1968: Omar Torrijos Ousts Arias in Panama[09980]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 11, 1968: Omar Torrijos Ousts Arias in Panama[09980]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 11, 1968: Omar Torrijos Ousts Arias in Panama[09980]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Oct. 11, 1968: Omar Torrijos Ousts Arias in Panama[09980]
Torrijos Herrera, Omar
Arias, Arnulfo
Martínez, Boris
Noriega, Manuel

Arnulfo Arias was elected president of Panama on October 1, 1968. Arias had taken the office on two previous occasions, in 1940 and 1949. For decades he had been involved in coups and countercoups for political power in Panama. Following his 1968 election, Arias moved to secure tighter control over the country’s National Guard. He sought to ensure that officers supporting his election would take command. He proposed to eliminate those members of the military whom he felt he could not control. Some of this latter group were dismissed or transferred to assignments outside the country.

Historically the military establishment had supported the civilian oligarchy that controlled the country’s politics and economy. This group was known as the rabiblancos, Rabiblancos (Panama)
Class conflict or “white tails,” referring to their predominantly Caucasian racial makeup. However, a gradual change had taken place in the National Guard’s personnel. Its officers, formerly largely from Panama’s mostly white upper class, was now composed primarily of the country’s mixed-race majority, the so-called mestizo class. Moreover, this new officer clique now sought to acquire professional status; most had attended military academies in neighboring countries or American military programs designed to provide the same professionalism. Arias’s attempt to control the National Guard’s operations prompted a quick negative response.

The initial leader of the rebellion was Major Boris Martínez, military commander of the province of Chiriquí. On October 11, Martínez seized the city of David and incarcerated Arias loyalists there. His action forced the other conspirators in the National Guard to declare themselves as well. A provisional military junta was named, and a number of civilians were called in to help establish the new government. The military quickly dispelled the thought that it would be democratic. In November, the National Guard quickly put down a demonstration of students, beating and arresting a number of them. For more than two decades, military rule would prevail. In March of 1969, Lieutenant Colonel Omar Torrijos Herrera, the junta’s chief of staff, seized control of the government and sent Major Martínez into exile. Torrijos, a graduate of neighboring El Salvador’s national military academy, was a mestizo with middle-class antecedents. He had long expressed doubt that the oligarchy should govern the country.

Torrijos quickly instituted land-reform measures, opening to the country’s peasantry much of what had been oligarchically controlled territory. Although this move was popular, only a small minority of the poor benefited from these measures. Of more material importance was his liberalization of the country’s banking laws, which resulted in a huge influx of deposits, leading to widespread money laundering by outside corporations.

Torrijos’s major accomplishment during the ten years that he dominated Panama’s government was the successful acquisition of the American-controlled Canal Zone. Canal Zone (Panama)
Canals and waterways, artificial Sensing that his country faced worldwide criticism for its continued domination of a portion of land properly belonging to another country, U.S. president Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy agreed that Panama was entitled to ownership of the canal and worked with Torrijos to see that the transfer of title to Panama was accomplished in 1977.

In 1978, facing increased criticism internally and externally of his authoritarian regime, Torrijos agreed to a resumption of democratic government in Panama. He formed a political party, the Partido Revolucionario Democratico Partido Revolucionario Democratico (Panama) (PRD), which was dominated by members of the National Guard. Naming Aristides Royo Royo, Aristides to head the PRD, Torrijos gave up his position as head of government in 1978 but retained his control of the National Guard itself. Royo was chosen by the National Assembly to be Panama’s president for a six-year term, after which popular suffrage would be installed for a general election in 1984.

Omar Torrijos Herrera (right) and U.S. president Jimmy Carter wave to photographers at the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty in 1978.

(National Archives)

A return to the democratic process was not to be, however. In 1981, Torrijos was killed in a crash of his private airplane. In the political uncertainty following the death of the National Guard’s leader, Manuel Noriega, Torrijos’s intelligence chief, seized power and established a military dictatorship once more. Noriega, a graduate of the Republic of Peru’s national military academy, had proven to be invaluable to his chief’s maintenance of tight internal control throughout the country during the latter’s dictatorial reign. Initially the American government thought that it could work with the new leader. He had been an informant for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency;Panama (CIA) since 1967. The CIA hoped that Noriega would acquiesce in the staging of contra activity in Panama against Nicaragua’s Nicaragua communist government, but Noriega refused to join in any planned invasion of that country. He also chose to maintain friendly relations with both the Nicaraguan government and Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

Moreover, under Noriega’s leadership, the National Guard expanded its role in both the arms- Arms smuggling and drug-smuggling Drug smuggling fields. Because the United States was the major market for the Colombian drugs smuggled through Panama, the American government tried to stop the Panamanian role in the transport of these drugs northward. Diplomatic efforts by the U.S. government to end this practice failed. The American government’s efforts to bring down the Noriega regime through outside economic and political pressure proved to be equally unsuccessful.

Finally, in 1987, the U.S. government indicted Noriega in a U.S. court for drug smuggling. Still the dictator resisted any domestic attempts to remove him from power, announcing that a state of war existed between his country and the United States. Finally, on December 20, 1989, the United States launched a full-scale invasion of Panama, captured Noriega and removing the dictator to the United States for trial on the drug charges and, ultimately, imprisonment.


The revolt by Panama’s National Guard against the democratically elected government of Arnulfo Arias in 1968 initiated a twenty-one-year span of military dictatorship in Panama, first by Omar Torrijos and then by Manuel Noriega. However, it took an invasion of the country by U.S. military forces in 1989 to restore the democratic process, including free elections, to the Central American country. Panamanian coup of 1968
Revolutions and coups;Panama

Further Reading

  • Dinges, John. Our Man in Panama: The Shrewd Rise and Brutal Fall of Manuel Noriega. New York: Times Books, 1990. A detailed biography of the Panamanian dictator from the time of his youth in the barrios of Panama City to his incarceration in the United States following his conviction in a Miami court on a variety of criminal charges.
  • Greene, Graham. Getting to Know the General: The Story of Involvement. London: Bodley Head, 1984. A brief biographical sketch of Omar Torrijos by a renowned British novelist who considered himself a personal friend of the Panamanian leader.
  • Harding, Robert C. The History of Panama. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. A brief, informative study of Panama’s development from its discovery by Europeans in 1501 to the popular election of Martín Torrijos, son of Omar Torrijos, in 2004.
  • _______. Military Foundations of Panamanian Politics. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2001. A detailed technical description of the dominance of the country’s political and economic life by its military institutions during the twentieth century.
  • Perez, Orlando J., ed. Post-Invasion Panama: The Challenges of Democratization in the New World Order. Boston: Lexington Books, 2000. A review of the events that led to the American invasion of Panama and a restoration of its democratic institutions.

La Violencia Begins in Colombia

United Fruit Company Instigates a Coup in Guatemala

Cuban Revolution

U.S. Troops Occupy the Dominican Republic

Inter-American Court of Human Rights Is Established