Panama's decision to ask U.S. combat troops to put down a police uprising has raised questions about the country's continued dependence on Washington a year after the government was installed by a U.S. invasion.
The rebellion led by retired Col. Eduardo Herrera Hassan after a spectacular jailbreak Tuesday night was Panama's worst crisis since the U.S. invasion that ousted strong man Gen. Manuel Noriega last Dec. 20.
Government critics said the role of U.S. troops in ending the crisis proved Panama's dependence on the United States and Washington's willingness to intervene.
"It is to the complete shame of our nation that (President Guillermo) Endara called for the U.S. intervention," said law professor Miguel Antonio Bernal, one of the government's most vocal critics.
"(It) makes absolutely clear the utter failure of U.S. and Panamanian policy. The Americans said they would withdraw after last year's invasion. But (Wednesday's) events prove that the tendency will be for them to intervene any time there is a problem," he said.
He said the Endara government should have handled the problem alone by negotiating with the rebels.
The uprising came just a week after Vice President Ricardo Arias Calderon said U.S. troops would stop helping Panamanian police patrol by the first anniversary of the invasion.
Arias Calderon as minister of government and justice has been struggling to reorganize Noriega's former army into a police force.
But when Herrera, who had been jailed on suspicion of plotting a coup, escaped and took over Police Headquarters, the Endara government immediately called on Washington for help.
Some 500 combat troops surrounded the building and eventually arrested Herrera and 36 of his supporters Wednesday.
One Panamanian sergeant was shot and later died. Panamanian journalists said he was shot by a U.S. soldier, but the Panama-based U.S. Southern Command, Washington's regional military headquarters, said the shot came from "an unknown assailant."
Government officials said the U.S. assistance helped avoid a potentially bloody struggle.
"Obviously we weren't prepared to deal with this kind of situation," said Endara spokesman Louis Martinz.
He said there were complaints that the U.S. soldiers use "excessive roughness" with Panamanian suspects, but "nobody complained about why the Americans were called in."
On Thursday, the U.S. troops and Panamanian police disappeared from the streets in an apparent effort to reduce the negative image of Wednesday's operation.
"There are no joint patrols except in the Canal areas. (All the troops) have returned to their installations," said Col. James Swank, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command.
Said one Panamanian business executive, "Look, let's face it. The Americans are going to be here forever, they will have to come in when something goes wrong, that's the way it is."