Once in a while, a leader must get mud on his boots," says Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera. True to his word, Torrijos, Panama's Chief of Government, thinks nothing of slogging down back-country paths to inspect remote villages. On impulse he will plunge fully clothed into rivers and streams for romps with the local kids.

Torrijos, 48, has been called a dictator, a leftist and an enemy of the United States. (The figurehead president of Panama, Demetrio Lakas, 51, handles only ceremonial chores.) The general's politics are not just a matter of internal concern; he is the key Panamanian figure in the current negotiations on the future of the Panama Canal. "Our first conversations with representatives of the new Administration were very encouraging," Torrijos says. "From what I know of President Carter, he is a man who believes in justice and not a man who would support the continuing existence of a North American colonial enclave in another country."

Torrijos concedes that the way to a new canal treaty is strewn with difficulties. Panama wants control of the 62-year-old canal by the year 2000, while the U.S. has suggested a deadline of 2025. Some 40,000 American citizens live in the 553-square-mile Zone, 8,900 of them military personnel. Thus far there has been no announced agreement on the number and size of U.S. bases or the future of U.S. citizens who work at the canal. Still, Torrijos remains optimistic. "Panama's sovereignty over the canal is no longer a question—the United States accepts that," he says. "I'm hopeful we will have a draft treaty by June or July."

Torrijos makes no effort to conceal his friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro, who keeps the general supplied with Havana cigars, stamped "Omar" on the band. But Torrijos insists that his admiration does not extend to the Cuban political system. "We are not about to free ourselves from one colonialist power in order to submit to another," he says. Torrijos is, above all, a fervent nationalist. The seventh of 12 children born to a rural couple who were schoolteachers, he has never shaken the thick provincial accent nor the rough-hewn manners of his youth. The future general began his training as a 17-year-old cadet at the military academy of neighboring El Salvador. As a young officer in the National Guard, the country's Unequipped police force, he gained a reputation as a head-cracker and was slightly wounded in antiguerrilla combat.

Torrijos came to power in a bloodless coup in 1968. A civilian cabinet was installed, but all political parties and the National Assembly were disbanded. The general has been criticized for stocking the government with his own relatives: Brother Hugo heads the Casino Gambling Board, brother Moises is ambassador to Spain, brother Marden directs the postal service and helps run the national brewery, and assorted sisters and cousins also hold lucrative jobs. Torrijos carefully shields his 40ish wife of 25 years, Raquel, and their two sons and daughter from publicity.

The restless Torrijos maintains no fixed abode or headquarters, choosing instead to work and relax at National Guard bases, an organization he heads. He is fond of wandering about the country by jeep or helicopter, sometimes without bodyguards, packing a .45 automatic on his jungle-green fatigues. He also carries a canteen which, he says, contains plain water but which some Panamanians suspect is vodka. The general has an amiable reputation as a womanizer.

His determination on the canal question is fierce. "The only people who will rule in Panama are the people of Panama," Torrijos vowed recently. More ominously, he also has declared, "By 1977, the United States will have run out of excuses, and the Panamanians will have run out of patience."