Childhood & Early Life
Omar Efraín Torrijos Herrera was born to José Maria, a teacher, and his wife, on February 13, 1929, in the city of Santiago de Veraguas, Republic of Panama, and had ten siblings.
On completion of his secondary education from the 'Juan Demóstenes Arosemena School' in Santiago, he joined the military academy of San Salvador, after earning a scholarship.
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In 1952, he was employed as a second lieutenant by the army of Panama, known as the 'Guardia Nacional' ('National Guard'). Four years later, he became a captain, and by the beginning of the next decade, he was serving as a major in the army.
Omar underwent military training in 1965, from 'US Army School of the Americas', now known as 'Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation' ('WHINSEC'), in Georgia. The following year he was made the Executive Secretary of 'Guardia Nacional', eventually got promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
In 1968, Torrijos was sent to El Salvador to serve in the embassy as a military attaché, after he allegedly got involved in rigging of elections. The same year, his comrades Coronel Jose Humberto Ramos and Major Boris Martínez planned a coup d'etat against President Arnulfo Arias. Arias had been elected as President for only eleven days.
After the coup saw the successful ousting of Arias, Omar and his colleague Demetrio Lakas decided to replace the exiled President with his deputy Raul Arango. Eventually José María Pinilla Fábrega was made the provisional President of Panama, though it was Torrijos and Martínez who dictated the newly established junta.
Soon, Omar was appointed as the commandment of 'Guardia Nacional', and in this capacity he took control of the press, including famous newspaper 'La Estrella de Panama', the legislature, and all political parties, thus establishing a rigid military rule.
Once, the military leader consolidated his new-found power, he sent his friends Martínez and Jose H. Ramos into exile in 1969. The same year, Demetrio Lakas was made the puppet head-of-state, with the dictator holding all actual powers.
The dictator announced elections in 1972, which was strictly monitored and only one opposition leader was allowed to contest. The 'Assembly of Community Representatives', approved the introduction of a new constitution, and voted for Lakas to be the President of Panama.
During his regime, Omar aimed at taking control of the region around the Panama Canal, and for this he initiated the 'Torrijos–Carter Treaties', along with U.S. President Jimmy Carter, on September 7, 1977.
In 1978, he made his supporter Aristides Royo the new President, while he publicly announced his retirement. However, he still pulled the reigns, and made his rule slightly more flexible, granting a few civil liberties.
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The following year, in 1979, Torrijos founded the 'Partido Revolucionario Democrático' ('PRD' or 'Democratic Revolutionary Party'). The political party vaguely followed socialist ideals, and was an amalgamation of leftist as well as rightist principles.
During his rule, he also made a few changes to the constitution drafted earlier, announcing 1984 as the probable date for the next elections. Apart from that he introduced new plans of action that would benefit the poor peasants and ethnic tribes.
He created employment opportunities, and established several schools to impart affordable education to the underprivileged. He gave land rights to farmers, and curbed the power of landowners, so that peasants were never repressed. These reforms made him popular with the mass, even though he was a staunch dictator.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1954, the military dictator got married to Raquel Pauzner, and the couple had three children. He also had a son, Martin, from an illegitimate affair, who later went on to become the President of Panama.
At the age of 52, on July 31, 1981, Omar died in a plane crash close to Penonomé, in Panama. According to reports, the 'DeHavilland Twin Otter' ('DHC-6') aeroplane had lost its way during a storm, but the incident was announced only a day later. After a few more days, the body and the crashed aircraft was found by a 'Special Forces' team.
Though a seemingly natural accident, there have been speculations that the plane had been tampered with either by CIA official of U.S.A. or by future dictator Manuel Noriega, as an assassination attempt.
After Torrijo's death, a nation-wide funeral service was held, and the body was temporarily interred at a churchyard in the city of Casco Viejo. Later the famous dictator’s body was transferred to a sepulchre in the Panama Canal Zone.
The site of the plane crash has been converted to a national park, whereas one of his residences at Coclesito has been turned into a museum.