Omar Torrijos (Herrera) was born February 13, 1929 in Santiago, Panama, to a family with 5 children. He was, by all accounts, a quiet child, respectful yet firm. He did well enough in high school to earn a scholarship to a local military academy, where his calm demeanor and obedient attitude earned him high marks. He joined the Panamanian National Guard in 1952, rose to the rank of captain, and was sent to the infamous School of the Americas for further training.
The early 1960s were a turbulent time for Panamanian politics. The government was dominated by the rabiblancos ("white tails"), an elite group of families centered in Panama City who spoke out against United States ownership of the Canal Zone, the National Guard's betrayal of their people, and other anti-nationalist policies. The people of Panama were very loyal to the leaders of the rabiblancos, especially Arnulfo Arias. However, the military had clashed with him on separate occasions, overthrowing him twice before. In 1968, Torrijos and colonel Boris Martinez engaged in another coup d'etat against the elected Arias, and removed him from power.
Through the following two years, Torrijos saw himself in the midst of a great power struggle, resulting in the exile of Martinez and the putting down of a large internal coup. Finally alone at the top, Torrijos made himself a brigadier general and then went about silencing all of his opposition. He arrested student leaders, labor leaders, and members of the governing council. He shut down the legislature and most of the nationalist newspapers, dissolved the major political parties, and began a ruthless manhunt against guerillas in the west of Panama. Finally in 1972 he reopened the Panamanian National Assembly, which enacted a constitution, giving Torrijos absolute military and civil powers. A dictator was born.
Over the next 5 years, Torrijos worked to improve both the poverty situation (nearly 80% of Panamanians lived below the poverty line) and the public works programs. This cost him a tremendous amount of money, which he borrowed from such countries as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Mexico. Unfortunately, Torrijo's ambition was exceeded by the corruption within his government, and soon Panama's national debt was the largest per capita in the world. In order to ease the situation, Torrijos flew to meet with President Jimmy Carter at Camp David in September of 1977, culminating in the signing of the Carter-Torrijos Treaties, which effectively handed over the Panama Canal to Panama in 1999 in exchange for military postings in the country.
Pleased with the outcome of the negotiations, Torrijos announced he would retire in 1978 and return Panama to a full civil government in 1984. He still remained in charge of the National Guard and helped run things through his figurehead president, Aristides Royo. In 1981, however, Torrijos was killed in a plane crash, ending his reign over Panama in a sudden fiery way. Torrijos was 52.
Modern speculation suggests that Manuel Noriega (another School of the Americas graduate) had Torrijos killed with the permission of the CIA (headed by future president George Bush). This led to the rise of Noriega to power, and later the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. Whatever the case may be, Torrijos' death left Panama in a power vacuum that took nearly twenty years to recalibrate with the rest of the world.