PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Panama's fired police chief -- once favored by the United States to replace Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega -- was formally charged yesterday with plotting to destabilize the Endara government. The charge carries a jail term of up to 20 years.
Attorney General Rogelio Cruz announced the charge just 24 hours after Col. Eduardo Herrera Hassan surrendered to police after returning from a business trip in Peru.
Colonel Herrera Hassan joins five other policemen -- his brother, a captain, a lieutenant, a sergeant and a corporal -- who were arrested 10 days ago. The arrests resulted from a two-month investigation, including a legal wiretap, into a series of bomb attacks in Chiriqui province and against two officials in the Cabinet of President Guillermo Endara.
Ricardo Arias Calderon, first vice president and head of the Ministry of Government and Justice, said the evidence shows that the alleged plotters sharpened their plans to take over all the police stations in Chiriqui province Oct. 16 during a nationwide labor protest.
More ominously, Mr. Arias Calderon disclosed that the alleged plotters have been linked to a number of civilians, but he refused to reveal further information. He said they apparently believed their action would find widespread support among Panamanians frustrated by years of economic crisis. The alleged plotters opposed the government's plan to convert the Noriega military force into a purely police operation.
Upon his return to Panama Wednesday, Colonel Herrera Hassan laughed off the charges, saying it "was ridiculous" to plot to overthrow the government in view of the 11,000 U.S. troops in Panama.
The colonel was named to head the forces under President Endara in January after the first top military man was found to have $1 million in unexplained funds.
The colonel was fired in August after it was discovered that the 50-man SWAT team headed by his brother had more than doubled in size without the permission of the civilian authorities.