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Panama colonels jockey for power after Torrijos rites

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Panama's immediate future, following the death of Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera, is in the hands of the colonels who run the country's National Guard. Jockeying for power is clearly under way. The colonels met in marathon sessions over the weekend and into the new week after the airplane crash July 31 that killed General Torrijos, Panama's strong man for the past 13 years.

Just who will emerge as his replacement is uncertain. The issue is complicated because General Torrijos made no plans for succession. At age 52, he fully intended to exercise behind-the-scenes control of Panama for a number of years to come.

Since 1978, General Torrijos has had no formal government, serving officially only as top commander of the country's National Guard. Panama's 9,000-member combined military and police force.

The guard, however, is the major power structure in the country. Panama's next leader is certain to come from its ranks.

Two names most prominently being mentioned are Lt. Col. Manuel Noriega, head of military intelligence, and Col. Ruben Dario Paredes, deputy chief of staff.

For the time being, the guard is commanded by Col. Florencio Flores, who served as chief of staff at the same time of General Torrijos' passing.

But he is regarded as a figurehead -- a fact very evident at Panama City's Metropolitan Cathedral Aug. 3 when General Torrijos's casket was put on view. As mourners gathered around the casket, Colonel Flores was pushed out of the way by a security guard and left standing at the back of the crowd -- alone and without any aides.

Aristedes Royo, General Torrijos' handpicked choice as president, is also seen as a figurehead. He has virtually no power and there is speculation that the guard may soon stage a palace coup to remove him and make way for someone of its own choosing.

The guard has always had divisions, and General Torrijos's great ability to play off one group against another -- and to serve as something of a power broker -- leaves a vacuum in Panamanian politics.

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