Panama Moves to Patch Relations with Its Latin Neighbors

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PANAMA is mending ties with Latin American nations to try to end its 14-month diplomatic isolation, which has been heightened by strained relations with the United States.

Panama's Foreign Ministry has in recent weeks softened its tone on the greatest source of friction between Panama and its Latin neighbors - Panama's refusal to grant safe passage to associates of deposed dictator Manuel Noriega, who remains under diplomatic protection. After US forces toppled General Noriega in 1989, several embassies, including those of Mexico, Cuba, and Peru, opened their doors to Noriega aides. Some left the country, but others, accused of serious crimes, were denied safe passage.

Panama insists the men are not political exiles, but common criminals who must face justice. But Latin nations say Panama is violating the right of asylum, considered sacred in Latin America.

Last month Panama abruptly let former Justice Minister Rodolfo Chiari flee his year-long hideout in the Ecuadorian Embassy. President Guillermo Endara admitted it was wrong to classify Mr. Chiari's crimes against the press as criminal.

Conciliatory signs include renewed Panamanian efforts to attend regional meetings, the arrival of Peruvian and Bolivian ambassadors, and the naming of a consul-general to Cuba.

"Panama is trying to break the isolation circle," says former Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez. "It feels it has been isolated not just from Latin nations, but also European countries as a backlash of its ill-designed policy of resisting asylum."

Panama's Foreign Minister Julio Linares is also hinting he wants to solve the problem of remaining exiles, despite pressure to refuse passage. In a speech es the police?

The answer, increasingly, is the public itself.

But in 15 major cities since 1983 and in 70 smaller towns over two decades, popular outrage has metamor-phosed into what some call an equally unwieldy monster - the citizen review board. Its purpose is to turn the searchlight back into the precinct house.

In addition have come new efforts to examine police training, recruitment, and procedure. Integration of minorities into departments has also been a major focus, which experts say can be a powerful internal check on police abuse.

More than anything, however, experts say the key to curbing police misconduct lies in the tone set at the top - the central reason so much nationwide attention has focused on Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates.

"All of these are just pieces of the puzzle," says Sam Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska. "Each is essential for a truly accountable police structure that keeps itself out of problems."

Interest in civilian review boards, which grew out of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, mushroomed in the 1980s as much because of concern about police violence as protecting the public pocketbook. Litigation and victim settlements cost time and money.

Though half of the nation's largest cities have such boards, several experts contend most are toothless - "public relations fronts for police departments," as Mr. Walker puts it.

To be effective, some scholars and police watchdog groups argue that complaint investigations should be handled entirely by civilians and that a nonpolice board or administrator review the probe and make recommendations for disciplinary action.

They maintain that probes conducted part-ly or fully by police - even if reviewed by civilians - aren't impartial.

In a 50-city survey, Mr. Walker identified Detroit, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and Baltimore as having the most independent boards. Omaha, Neb., and Phoenix are among the least independent.

Even civilian panels have problems, though: They're frequently underfunded and understaffed - and many police don't like them.

"Lawyers are judged by lawyers, doctors by doctors. …