Every gold mine breeds its own army, Hunter Thompson said. He was talking about Las Vegas, but I read Fear and Loathing when I was about 20 and was headed for the Army’s jungle warfare course in Panama, so I came to think of the phrase differently.
I remember landing at what was then Omar Torrijos airport, in a chartered jet from the United States, clutching our weapons between our knees, and being surprised at what was then Guardia Nacional forces patrolling in and out of the terminal with full-auto rifles with rounds in their magazines and probably chambers, unlike ours. No U.S. airport I had ever seen looked like that then.
We were hustled onto army deuce-and-a-halfs in the middle of the night and sped across the isthmus on the sole highway, supposedly to keep our visibility and anti-US sentiment down. There may have been a landing-craft crossing. Then we were at the U.S. installation Ft. Sherman, home of the Jungle Operations Training Center.
It was my first time out of the U.S.—disregarding my birth in what was once Saigon, Vietnam—but I understood at a glance more about why we were an army and what someone might think our gold mine was. The level of militarization at the civilian terminal on the edge of Panama City was more of a puzzle to me, young lad.
Two years later, when I was stationed permanently in Panama, I often saw men in plain clothes guarding the entrances to banks and businesses with assault rifles, combat shotguns, and handguns. It happened not only in smaller towns, and in the rough city of Colón, which is the Atlantic port of the Canal, but also in Panama City, the capital. These weapons were not seen in public much in the U.S. then.
As we worked around the country and roamed Panama City on our own, dated Panamanians, shopped both downtown and at the rich-people’s mall, I came to understand Panama’s extreme disparity. I used to drive my baby-blue, Chevy LUV truck into Hollywood, a slum like I had never seen before, where people lived in sideless lean-tos with no water or electricity, to pick up friends to go to the club. I would turn corners, prepared to stop quickly or to floor it, depending on the presumed intent of men standing in the dark with rifles.
The gold mine of Manuel Noriega’s drugs, money laundering, and human smuggling was in full swing then. I remember lying in my barracks, watching Dan Rather report, from the U.S., the discovery of opposition-leader Dr. Hugo Spadafora’s headless body in a mailbag—said to be a U.S. bag, for frisson—on the border with Costa Rica. His body showed evidence of torture and dismemberment in the style of Jamal Khashoggi. Noriega was eventually found guilty of conspiracy in that murder. Three years after I left Panama (and got out of the army), the U.S. invaded and removed Noriega from power. Panama became (even more so) a center for international banking, commerce, and shipping.
Gold mines evolve, and so do their armies.
A friend from Chicago pretended to be horrified recently when I told him the library in the Louisiana town where we own a house has armed, uniformed deputies on duty at all times. They are often grossly out of shape and insolently lean on magazine racks and stare at patrons. I am told they are moonlighting from the jail.
Civic institutions like the town’s library are run by the “police jury,” in 40 of 64 Louisiana parishes (counties), which serves as the legislative and executive government. My friend pretended to be horrified too by that name and said police juries and unneeded, armed deputies sounded like some banana republic, not the U.S. he knew.
But we in the U.S. have all come to accept SWAT team drills in our children’s schools; agents with military weapons in our airports and at our New Year’s Eve bashes; militias training in our fields and woods; and a gun for every American. This is different from what was then, when I was a young troop, the United States.
If these are our armies now, what is the gold mine?