The Panama Canal Zone Police- Part I

Empire Police Station circa 1910

The Canal Zone Police at Empire about 1913
image thanks to

Joaquin Beleño, authof of Gamboa Road Gang Image thanks to El Siglo.

The need for order and control was an obvious requisite if the goal of constructing the canal was to be met. The Panama Canal Police force, established by the Canal officials, was empowered by the administration to enforce social control in the numerous ways at their disposal. In the early years three different police units existed.

There was the “elite” group, one might say, comprised of about a hundred white American policemen. Amongst their duties was the coordination of security services, the gathering of intelligence through the use of plainclothesmen, the supervision of black officers, maintaining liaison with other (security) agencies, and administering and maintaining the jails.

There was an equal number of Westindian police in charge of patrolling streets and work camps. Their job consisted in controlling their “own people,” as it was within this sector that most of the conflicts or troubles might be expected to arise. This is an interesting point, however, since, from all historical and personal accounts, the peaceful and non-aggressive behavior of the Westindians was one very notable feature of life in the Canal Zone as well as in Panama proper. In fact, White Americans have left no record of fearing any violence from the Westindians. From all historical accounts the Canal Zone Police was intimidating and they often took credit, although undeservedly so many times, for the reigning peace in the Zone.

The third form of police driven social control was the Panamanian Police force, which, more often than not, was supervised by the Americans, thus extending the power and control of the Canal Zone police into the country of Panama.

Gamboa Road Gang, a novel written by Joaquin Beleño, was based on a real life case pointing to the abuses and the injustices behind the Panama Canal Police force. Ata, a young Westindian, is incarcerated in the Gamboa jail condemned to serve a fifty year sentence. His crime: falling in love with a white Zonian girl. Tormented by the injustice of his captivity and by his beloved’s betrayal at obeying the dictates of her family and “people,” the white Americans, when she backs away from her involvement with him, he falls in a suicidal confrontation with his jailers who riddle his body with bullets.

Criminal activity, in fact, or activity worthy of incarceration was quite minimal for the amount of people who lived on the Zone. By today’s standards one would recall these days with certain nostalgia. The majority of individuals arrested usually received fines or short jail sentences. The year 1912 was probably the peak year for arrests when 7,000 arrests were made. Americans and Panamanians made up about 9% each of the total, Jamaicans made up 19%, Barbadians made up 24% (the largest group arrested) and Martinicans 4%. The crimes most cited were disorderly conduct, loitering, petty larceny, and vagrancy. Fines were deducted from the wages of the employees. For more serious crimes there was the army-administered penitentiary (Gamboa) reserved for those serving longer sentences.

The year 1913 was perhaps the year in which the largest number of convicts was recorded; there were 133 convicts according to the records and it was never again matched throughout the history of the Canal. Westindians, Americans, and Panamanians made up the bulk of the inmates and were confined to separate cellblocks. Thereafter the prison population steadily decreased after the construction of the Canal.

In our next post we will take a closer look at how the Zone Police also created conflicts and developed predatory and abusive tactics to exercise their control.

This story continues.

2 responses to “The Panama Canal Zone Police- Part I

  1. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Do you think that the pressure of the intense labor of building the canal had an effect on the Convict rate? Climate?

    Seems though that 133 convicts was a small number in the first place.For the population…

    Very good article, Sorry I skipped some of the older articles. But when I saw Police part one, I had to read. 🙂


  2. Jose-Luis Castillo

    Mr. Reid,
    Have done any research on the real life story of Gamboa Road gang?

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