The Panama Canal: 75 Years of Security History

By Morris, Charles | Security Management, September 1989 | Go to article overview

The Panama Canal: 75 Years of Security History

Morris, Charles, Security Management


THIS YEAR THE PANAMA CANAL CELEbrates its diamond jubilee. After 75 years of operation and 700,000 transits, the canal continues to offer safe and efficient service to the maritime industry. The security of the canal is critical to maintaining the customer confidence that promotes such use.

Canal security measures have changed over the years, reflecting developments in armament and changes in the threat and in the very nature of war. The big guns that first guarded the Pacific and Atlantic approaches to the canal are long gone. The antiaircraft guns and searchlights of World War II are gone, as are the barrage balloons and smoke generators. HAWK missiles came and went in the 1960s.

Perhaps all that has not changed is the canal's vulnerability to sabotage and terrorism. Combating these threats requires the vigilance of a trained proprietary security force and the dynamic and intertwining associations of the international community, in whose interest it is to keep the canal an open and neutral avenue for world commerce. The waterway's reputation for security has endured the current political and economic strife in the Republic of Panama and that country's strained relationship with the United States. Vessel traffic is undiminished.

Since the SS Ancon made the first official transit through the Panama Canal in 1914, more than 4 billion long tons of the world's goods have been dafely carried through the waterway despite two world wars, the Korean conflict, and the recent escalation of regional tensions and international terrorism.

The security and defense of the water route through the isthmus have been key to its successful operation. In fact, security of the forerunner of the canal, a land route through the isthmus called the Camino Real (Gold Road), began with the Spanish Empire. Fort San Lorenzo, crowning a steep cliff at the mouth of the Chagres River, was perhaps the most strategically located and violently contested Spanish fortification of that era. It defended the Caribbean approach to the Gold Road, through which great wealth transited. This was the back door to Panama City, since the easiest and quickest route across the isthmus was up the Chagres River to the village of Cruces, then along the Las Cruces trail on foot or by mule to Panama City.

When the Panama Railroad replaced the Las Cruces trail in 1855 (hastened by the 1849 California gold rush), gangs of thieves and murderers were roaming the country. The government of New Granada granted full powers to the railroad company to police the isthmus. The railroad hired one "Run" Runnels, an ex-Texas Ranger. Using frontier methods and commanding a posse of Mexicans, Chileans, blacks, and Asiatic immigrants, he cornered criminals of every shade and strung them up in batches of 30 and 40 along the seawall at Panama City. Professional banditry soon lost its popularity.

The subsequent ease of crossing the isthmus resulted in a vastly increased number of travelers. By 1856, rioting had broken out among the many diverse groups in Panama City, and US Marines were sent in to maintain law and order.

At the beginning of the Panamanian revolution in November 1903, several hundred marines and sailors landed from the US warships Nashville and Dixie to protect railroad property. Their presence was critical to the Panamanian independence movement.

A treaty between the United States and the newly created Republic of Panama permitting the building of the Panama Canal was subsequently signed. The 1903 treaty also gave the United States unilateral responsibility for defense of the canal and created the Canal Zone, a 5-mile-wide strip along the canal route, ocean to ocean, controlled exclusively by the United States. The first US troops permanently stationed on the isthmus were a battalion of Marines, who arrived in 1904 to protect the Panama railroad and safeguard the construction of the canal. …

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