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Army Colonel Unhappy With New Police Role

COL. EDUARDO HERRERA HASSAN thought he was a man of destiny. Just hours after United States troops invaded Panama on Dec. 20, the US Army hurriedly flew the exiled colonel back to Panama to head the Public Force (PPF), the civilian-run reincarnation of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega's now defunct Defense Force.

But three months later, Colonel Herrera is so unhappy with his scaled-down role as national police chief that he talks openly about resigning. Diplomats say he submitted a letter of resignation in February, but was persuaded to stay through the early stages of the transition.

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``Whatever his commitment to the democratic process,'' says one senior US military official, ``Herrera came down here thinking he would be commander in chief like Noriega, not just the chief of police.''

Herrera's personal crisis epitomizes the PPF's identity crisis. As it has become clear that the new government wants to turn the PPF into a Costa Rican-style police force, Herrera has suggested he wants to return to Miami to accept an executive job. In staff meetings with civilian leaders, Herrera is becoming more aloof and disinterested, often letting junior officers take the lead, colleagues say. ``He takes no initiatives on his own,'' says one disappointed US Army officer.

Herrera has played an important role in preventing a breakdown of military order that could have crippled the new government. But his soldiers - all veterans of Noriega's military - are reluctant to let go of the old system.

Some troops have replaced their fatigues with the new khaki uniforms, but they still salute their superiors and refer to each other by rank.

While the strict military code has helped keep them together during this transition, it may be what stands in the way of truly transforming them into a police force.

Herrera's possible resignation this summer would leave a leadership void atop the Public Force. ``Such a vacuum would be hard to fill,'' says one US military official.

But another American official says that his departure might be just what the civilian government needs to take full control of the police force: ``What the police need is technical skill more than a knight in shining armor.''

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