- 1 Background
- 2 Governance
- 3 Legislative System
- 4 Judicial System
- 5 Executive System
- 6 The Legal System
- 7 Rights of the Accused
- 8 Criminal Procedure
- 9 The Criminal Process stages
Panama is a country of Central America located on the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow bridge of land that connects North and South America. Panama has a population of 4 million people as of 2017. Its capital and largest city is Panama City, and the official language is Spanish. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Panama was widely settled by Chibchan, Chocoan, and Cueva peoples, but there is no accurate knowledge of the size of the Pre-Columbian indigenous population. Panama was colonized by the Spanish during the 14th century. In 1501, Rodrigo de Bastidas was the first European, by order of the Spanish crown, to explore the Isthmus of Panama. The first permanent European settlement, Santa María la Antigua del Darién on the Americas mainland was founded in 1510 which further influenced the building of intercontinental and transisthmian portage routes such as the Camino Real in 1510 led to the trans-atlantic system of treasure fleets and trade. In 1538, the Audiencia Real de Panama jurisdiction was created from Nicaragua to Cape Horn (a rocky headland on the southernmost headland of Chile). The Audiencia Real de Panama was a governing body and superior court in the New World empire of Spain and also functioned as the judicial and appellate court. Due to its geopolitical position, the canal permitted shippers of goods to save time and money by transporting cargo more quickly between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans earning itself a valuable part of the Spanish Empire from 1513-1821. In 1707, the Acts of Union shifted power from Spain to England, which greatly lowered Panama’s significance to Spain. In 1819, Nueva Granada (territory north of South America that included Panama) achieved independence from Spain.
In 1903, Panama separated from Gran Colombia (now known as the Republic of Colombia) as the Republic of Panama. The Panama Canal was completed in 1914 with the help and presence of American forces. Afterwards, anti-American sentiments began to grow and erupted in 1964 when 21 students died during an anti-U.S. protest. This led to a crackdown in the Panamanian military and eventually the dictatorship of Omar Torrijos in 1968. Omar Torrijos created gradual reforms to the Panamanian political system through the founding of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). He instituted this political platform to garner favor with the U.S. congress in ceding control of the Panama Canal. The Constitution of Panama was promulgated and came into force on October 11, 1972. It has been amended five times, with its last amendment canonized in 2004. In 1981, Torrjos died and his protege, Colonel Manual Noriega,assumed power. Due to his dictatorial policies and his involvement with drug trafficking, and the dissatisfaction of the Panamanian people, the United States invaded the country through Operation Just Cause, which ended in 1990. As will be discussed later, democracy was restored in the wake of Noreiga’s removal. Noriega was subsequently convicted of criminal charges in both the United States and France. Currently, the primary sectors of Panama’s economy consists of services (82% of the GDP), industry (15.7%), and agriculture (2.4%). Panama’s GDP grew by 6.2% in 2014, according to the World Bank, and the country has been one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America due to infrastructure projects such as the $5.3b in the Panama Canal expansion and foreign direct investments. Despite Panama being classified as a high-income nation with a gross national income per capita of $12,055 or more, 22.1% of the population live below the poverty line and 20% of workers live on $13 a day as of 2018. The Gini coefficient indicates that Panama’s income inequality remains among the highest in the world. Panama’s indigenous groups are greatly affected by such disparity, with 86% of that population living in poverty and over 90% unable to meet basic needs.
Panama has a presidential representative democratic republic with a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the president, legislative power is vested in the National Assembly, and the courts system holds the judicial power. The government is divided into 3 branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.
Since July 1, 2019, the current president is Laurentino Corizo of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), with Jose Gabriel Carrizo as his vice president. The PRD was created as part of the liberalization of the late 1970s with its main ideologies being social democracy and populism, positioning itself in the center-left category. Their mission is to transform the political, economic, social and cultural structures of the country to generate greater wealth and give it better social distribution, by establishing in each community a broad participation structure with a shared human development project. The PRD was the first party in Panama to have undergone such restructuring, and it is viewed as the largest and most organized political party in the country. Despite Panama’s tremendous democratic and economic gains over the past generation, the country is still in transition, with the 2014 election of President Juan Carlos Varela signaling a return to a more solidified democracy after the authoritarian ideology of his popular predecessor, Ricardo Martinelli. The state’s monopoly on the use of force is ubiquitous throughout the country and is not significantly challenged by any notable domestic or international political actors. However, the state does have some gaps in its control over the remote, densely forested Darién region abutting the Colombian border. Because of this site’s inaccessibility, drug traffickers and Colombian neo-paramilitary groups have a presence in this region.
The legislative system is composed of the National Assembly or Asamblea Nacional of Panama, formerly titled the Legislative Assembly. It is comprised of 71 members, called Legislators or Diputados who are elected for five-year terms. In turn, below each of these Superior or Appeals Courts, there are First Instance Courts that receive the lawsuits or requests according to the subject matter. In the Accusatory Criminal System, there are four Courts of Appeals in Panama City, Santiago, David, and Las Tablas. These courts hear the appeals of the Judges of Guarantees (who act during the investigation phase), Judges of the Oral Trial, and Compliance Judges (who act during the phase of compliance of the sentence).
The Asamblea Nacional holds the power to create, modify, or repeal laws, ratify treaties, declare war, decree amnesty for political offenses, establish the national currency, raise taxes, ratify government contracts, approve the national budget, and prosecute the President of the Republic and the magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice. There are 71 Legislators in the Assembly: 45 members are directly elected in multi-seat constituencies in populous towns and cities by proportional representation vote and 26 are directly elected in single-seat constituencies from outlying rural districts by plurality vote. All legislators are elected by popular vote, but candidates from a rural district are chosen through a first-past-the-post electoral system (this form of voting means that the person who gets the most votes wins), while those from a more populated city are chosen using a proportion-based formula. To be eligible for election, an individual must be at least 21 years of age and a Panamanian citizen either by birth or by naturalization with 15 years of residence in Panama subsequent to naturalization. These elections were last held on May 5, 2019, and will next be in May 2024. The PRD currently holds the majority with 35 seats, with the CD (Democratic Change) party holding 18, Panamenista 8, Molirena 5, and 5 Independent seats. 22% of Panama’s seats of legislators are held by women. Duties of the Legislative Assembly include initiating legislation, approving the budget, establishing political divisions, and ruling on international treaties. According to the Constitution, the National Assembly meets by its own right in the Capital of the Republic. Ordinary sessions last eight months in a period of one year, and are divided into two ordinary legislatures of four months each and two months of plenary recess (art. 149). Laws are divided into two categories: organic and ordinary. If the law is organic, it is proposed by either permanent committees of the National Assembly, the Ministers of State (as authorized by the Cabinet Council), in the judicial system by the the Supreme Court, Attorney General of the Republic and Solicitor General of the administration (if they refer to the enactment or amendment of national codes), or by the Electoral Tribunal (on matters within its jurisdiction). Ordinary laws are proposed by any member of the National Assembly, Ministers of State upon authorization of the Cabinet Council, or by Presidents of Provincial Councils upon authorization of the Provincial Council.
The Civil Law system (also known in Latin America as the Roman-Germanic System) is applied by the Judicial branch. In this system, the emphasis on the role of judges is to apply the binding statutes as written, rather than to interpret the statutes and adapt the law by judicial decision such as in common law systems. The Constitution, along with codes, laws, and regulations serve as direct sources from which the judges refer to during their cases. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. The judicial branch consists of a national supreme court, five Superior Courts (also known as Courts of Appeals), depending on the type of case. The Supreme Court of Justice heads the Judicial branch, consisting of nine Justices, or Magistrates, who hold the power of hearing and ruling on cases. The Supreme judges hear cases related to the constitution. Justices are appointed by decision of the Cabinet Council, subject to the approval of the Legislative Branch, for a ten year term. If the post of a Justice becomes vacant during the course of a term, a new Justice shall be appointed to serve the remainder of said term. At present, there are nine judges of the Supreme Court divided into four chambers, for civil, criminal, administrative, and general business cases, the latter being composed of the Presidents of the civil, criminal, and administrative chambers. Judges (and their alternates) are nominated by the Cabinet Council and subject to confirmation by the Legislative Assembly. Article 203 of the Constitution calls for the replacement of two judges every two years. The court also selects its own president to preside over the court every two years.
To be eligible as a Justice of the Supreme Court, one must qualify for all of the following:
1. Must be Panamanian by birth
2. Must be at least 35 years old
3. Must have full possession of civil and political rights
4. Must hold a university degree in law and have that degree registered in the office prescribed by law
5. Must have completed a ten year period of service either in the law profession, in a position in the Judicial Branch, the Public Ministry, the Electoral Tribunal, or the Office of Ombudsman
Below the Supreme Court of Justice, there are four Courts of Appeals: Panama City, Santiago, David, and Las Tablas. These courts hear appeals that come from the judges of Guarantees, Judges of Oral Trial, and Judges of Post Conviction Compliance. At the local level, Justices of the Peace (Law 16 of 2016 replaced corregidores and night judges with these Justices of the Peace) hear minor civil and criminal cases involving sentences under one year. Appointed by the municipal mayors, these judges are similar to Justices of the Peace, in which they usually hear minor civil matters and petty criminal cases. Their proceedings are not subject to the Code of Criminal Procedure and defendants lack procedural safeguards afforded in the regular courts.
Duties of the Judicial Branch include hearing appeals, having jurisdiction over all trials, and carrying out review for determining miscarriages of justice or questions of law. Justice may also be administered by arbitral jurisdiction in accordance with the provisions of the law. The principle of judicial independence stems from the Constitution and provides that judges are independent in their acts and are subject to nothing more than the Constitution and the laws (art. 207). The arbitration tribunals are entitled to consider and decide issues concerning their own competence (art. 202).
The president of Panama is both the head of the state and head of government. The Executive branch is led by an elected president for a five-year term who appoints or removes members of the Ministers of State. (art. 183) Formerly there were two elected vice presidents, but since 2009, the position is held by one person who serves a five-year term. The president can either exercise his or her powers alone, or alternatively with the participation of the respected Minister or all of the Ministers in the Cabinet Council (art. 176) (See below for a list of the Ministry positions). The president, together with twelve Ministers of State, form the Cabinet Council. The Cabinet Council’s powers include decreeing a state of emergency and suspending constitutional guarantees (art. 55), and selecting Justices for the Supreme Court (art. 202).
There is one State Minister for each of the following areas:
1. Ministry of Agricultural Development 2. Ministry of Commerce and Industries 3. Ministry of Economy and Finance 4. Ministry of Education 5. Ministry of the Environment 6. Ministry of Foreign Affairs 7. Ministry of Government 8. Ministry of Health 9. Ministry of Housing and Spatial Planning 10. Ministry of the Presidency 11. Ministry of Public Security 12. Ministry of Public Works 13. Ministry of Social Development 14. Ministry of Work and Labor Development 15. Ministry of Canal Affairs 16. Ministry of Culture
The Legal System
Panama’s system is based on Civil Law, which means that the laws are methodized into written codes and statutes. The Constitution and procedure laws have provisions, from which Panamanian jurists have determined to be the main concepts or principles which guide the legal system. A chapter of the Constitution is devoted to individual freedoms, which provide safeguards against arbitrary detention or punishment. Article 20 of the Constitution provides that no discrimination shall exist by reason of birth, race, sex or religion and that foreigners and national are equal before the law. This equality is also applicable to the acts and appearances of parties before the judicial entities. Another constitutional guarantee provides that nobody shall be judged other than by a competent authority for violations of the previously enacted law. This rule of law principle is also extended to imposition of fines or any other decisions that any public official takes with regards to citizens or their properties.
Rights of the Accused
The Panamanian Constitution grants several fundamental human rights under Title III: Individual and Social Rights and Duties. The rights of the accused are included, and are as follows:
Right to Counsel
Legal counsel is a right to the defendant beginning from the moment of arrest to all police and judiciary proceedings(art. 22). Every person has the right to appoint a defense attorney from the moment he or she is named in any act of investigation. In other words, this right does not begin “from the moment of arrest” but can be traced back to a previous moment (art. 98 of the Code of Criminal Procedure).
Persons are protected from ex post facto laws, and can only be punished by laws that predate their perpetration (art. 31).
Presumption of Innocence
Persons accused of committing a crime have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, at a public trial, under due process of law (art. 22).
Protection from Unjust Restraint
All individuals who are arrested either for reasons not specified or without proper legal formalities shall be released upon their or another person’s petition through the writ of habeas corpus. This writ can also be submitted if there are conditions within the person’s arrest or detainment that puts them at risk and/or infringes their right of defence (art. 23).
The death penalty is prohibited (art. 30) .The last execution in Panama occurred in 1909 in the Canal Zone, under the administration of the United States.
Human dignity, social justice, and general welfare are mentioned in the Preamble as some of the main protections offered by the Constitution. The rights and guarantees provided in the Constitution must be considered as minimum standards (art. 17).
Prohibition of Double Jeopardy
A person is prohibited from being tried without a competent authority in accordance with legal procedures and never more than once for the same criminal or disciplinary cause (art. 32).
Protection from Self-incrimination
No person is obliged to testify against oneself, a spouse, relatives to the fourth kinship or second degree of marital relations in criminal, correctional, or police proceedings (art. 25).
Panama may not extradite its nationals, nor aliens, for political offenses (art. 24).
Correspondence and other private documents are considered inviolable, and are never to be searched or seized, with the exception by a formal warrant of a competent authority with a specific purpose.
Panama´s Criminal Process Code was adopted in Law 63 of August 28th, 2008. The purpose of the penal process is to investigate crimes and prosecute participants. In a criminal process the following parties are typically involved: The Public Ministry, the victim or injured party, the accused, the defense lawyers, and other advisers.
Filing a Complaint
Complaints in the penal process can be verbal or written. If a written complaint is used, it must be signed by the complainant, or by another capable person. Alternatively, verbal accusations are recorded in the form of a statement. This statement is signed by the complainant or by another person at their request. The investigating officer also signs the statement. Next, the complaint is presented in-person or through a special representative. In Panama, accusations can be submitted at either the National Police, the Judicial Investigation Department, or the Complaints Reception Center.
The Criminal Process stages
This preliminary stage is where judicial investigators gather evidence of means of proof (which does not have a specific term of duration, except for the statute of limitations for the type of crime). Once these elements have been gathered, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, through its persecutors, files charges against the person under investigation in a hearing before a Judge of Guarantees.
The Investigation Stage
After the Preliminary Investigation is completed, prosecutors collect evidence to later present the indictment at the Intermediate Stage. The term indictment or accusation is used, depending on the stage of the process. The Ministerio Publicio investigates the crimes based on the criminal charge presented or seeks to resolve the dispute through alternative means for resolutions of criminal disputes and other alternative procedures with the Guarantee Judge monitoring according to the Law.
The Intermediate Stage
The Minsterio Publicio, based on the elements of conviction that it has, can ask for the case to be dismissed or they can formulate the accusation clearly identifying the facts of the alleged crime, as well as the evidence that will contribute to prove what is intended.
The Oral Trial Stage
Parties shall debate before the trial court, based on the case theory, the proposed facts and the evidence that was admitted by the Guarantee Judge in the Intermediate Stage.
Punishment Execution Stage
After the sentence is executed, the Compliance Judge administers and verifies that the punishment imposed is complied with.
Victim Rights (this list is not meant to be exhasutive)
1. Right to justice and right to compensation for damages;
2. Right to receive protection and to participate in the criminal process in accordance with the Law;
3. Right to receive medical, psychiatric or psychological, spiritual, material and social assistance, whenever required;
4. Right to intervene as a complainant in the process so as to demand criminal responsibility of the defendant and right to obtain civil compensation for damages resulting from the crime;
5. Right to seek security for himself/herself or his/her family in certain cases;
6. Right to be informed about the status on the corresponding criminal process and
7. Right to receive explanations related to the development of the process.
Rights of a charged person under arrest
1. Right to be assisted by a defense attorney. If one cannot be afforded, one will be provided to the charged person at no cost to him/her by the State through the Public Defender Office.
2. Right to be informed in a clear manner of the fact or facts that he/she is accused of; of the existing evidence against him/her and of the legal provisions that are applicable to him/her.
3. Right to know the identity of the person who makes the arrest, the authority that authorizes it and that is responsible for his/her custody;
4. Right to communicate immediately with the person of his/her choice and with the attorney to inform him/her about the arrest and to be provided with the means to exercise his/her rights.
5. Right to not self-incriminate, to remain silent, to not be subject to mistreatment nor pressure so as to waive this right, or to not be subject to methods or techniques that change his/her will.
6. Right to not be presented before the media or the community in a way to damage his/her reputation.
7. Right to meet with his/her defense attorney in a confidential manner.
- Padilla, Armando. Interview. By Deanna Lopez. 9 August 2021
- Padilla, Armando. Interview. By Deanna Lopez. 9 August 2021.
- Padilla, Armando. Interview. By Deanna Lopez. 9 August 2021.
- Padilla, Armando. Interview. By Deanna Lopez. 9 August 2021
- Padilla, Armando. Interview. By Deanna Lopez. 9 August 2021