American Crime Case #43: The U.S. Invasion of Panama, 1989-1990

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.

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On December 20, 1989, the U.S. military invaded Panama with 27,500 troops and 300 aircraft, killing thousands of civilians and removing Manuel Noriega.  Photo: AP

THE CRIME:

On December 20, 1989, the U.S. military invaded Panama with 27,684 troops and 300 aircraft, killing thousands of civilians and removing Manuel Noriega and his Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) from power. The invasion was given the name of “Operation Just Cause” by U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.

The lead-up to the invasion happened during the Ronald Reagan presidency (1981-1989), while the invasion itself was planned and occurred during the first year of the presidency of George H.W. Bush (Bush Sr.).

In 1986, it was revealed that Noriega had ties to Colombian drug interests, and he was linked to drug trafficking and money laundering. Further, he was providing intelligence information simultaneously to Cuba and the U.S.1

Reagan instituted economic and military measures against Noriega as a way to have him removed from power, but despite wanting to send troops to remove Noriega from power, he never did. By cutting economic aid to Noriega, Reagan created an economic crisis, including food shortages and widespread hunger among poorer Panamanians.

By mid-1988, middle class Panamanians who supported the U.S. and were backers of Noriega began to turn against him as the Panamanian economy fell apart and the banking system was in shambles. Black and impoverished Panamanians suffered the most from the U.S.-imposed economic measures, but there was a section of those people who supported Noriega because he was a mestizo (mixed race) who came from their impoverished neighborhood. Noriega’s main support came from the military forces of the PDF and small shopkeepers. Noriega’s determination to remain in power made him more hostile towards the U.S.

After Bush became president, Noriega stole an election in May 1989 from Guillermo Endara, who was backed by the U.S. Bush began to ramp up troop levels in and around Panama. (The U.S. had approximately 18 military installations inside Panama in 1989.) Then in October, an attempted coup against Noriega, which the U.S. supported but did not militarily back, failed.

On December 16, a U.S. Marine lieutenant was shot and killed. The Bush administration claimed Noriega’s forces were responsible and ordered the U.S. National Command Authority to execute “Operation Just Cause.”

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When the U.S. alleged that a U.S. Marine was killed by Noriega’s forces on December 16, the order was given for Operation Just Cause to be executed. The U.S. invasion began with an overwhelming ground force  Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. invasion began with an overwhelming ground force and unchallenged air superiority. Its goal: destroying Noriega’s military forces, capturing Noriega, and terrorizing the community where Noriega had his strongest support

Stealth bombers, which had never been used before in combat, dropped 2,000-lb bombs.

The Central American Human Rights Commission (CODEHUCA) reported, “The most devastated civilian neighborhoods—such as Chorrillos and San Miguelito—were extremely poor, densely populated areas. Half of the neighborhood of Chorrillos—which had a pre-invasion population of approximately 25,000—was literally destroyed by US troops and civilian residents were victims of direct attacks.”2

The headquarters of Noriega and the PDF was situated next to the impoverished Chorillos neighborhood, Noriega’s hometown. The destruction of that neighborhood included destroying Noriega’s forces and was meant to eliminate any support for Noriega from the people of Chorillos.

U.S. troops set buildings on fire and executed people in the streets. In the Academy Award–winning documentary The Panama Deception, a witness says, “The North Americans began burning down El Chorrillo at about 6:30 in the morning. They would throw a small device into a house and it would catch on fire. They would burn a house, and then move to another and begin the process all over again. They burned from one street to the next. They coordinated the burning through walkie-talkies.” Witnesses recounted U.S. soldiers setting residential buildings on fire. Video footage shows the charred remains of rows of housing complexes in El Chorrillo.3

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Noriega’s and the PDF’s headquarters was situated next to the impoverished Chorillos neighborhood, Noriega’s hometown.  The destruction of Noriega’s neighborhood, Chorillos, was meant to eliminate any support for Noriega. U.S. troops set buildings on fire and executed people in the streets.

Author William Blum reported that “...people burning to death in the incinerated dwellings, leaping from windows, running in panic through the streets, cut down in cross fire, crushed by tanks, human fragments everywhere.”4

The devastation of the El Chorrillo neighborhood, a residential area the size of ten city blocks, was so complete that not one single structure was left standing. Those who were not killed and lived in El Chorrillo called it “Guernica” or “Little Hiroshima.”

Panamanians interviewed by CODEHUCA testified to the horrors of the invasion:

[W]e saw from our window a group of approximately 18 soldiers coming down the street, and saw them entering each house. We saw the residents coming out, followed by the soldiers, and then we saw the houses, one by one, go up in smoke. The US soldiers were burning the houses. We saw people trapped in their apartments, because they lived on the second floors of these wooden houses. (COHEHUCA Doc. #7)

[W]e saw a pile of bodies, both dead and wounded, piled all together on top of each other. We thought that they were all dead until we saw some of them moving. We saw some of them with their heads smashed open. We saw others that were totally crushed and I think that tanks had passed right over these people because they were so crushed. (CODEHUCA Doc. #7)

Every day, truckloads were taking bodies to the common graves. In the morning and in the afternoon, I saw US troops driving US trucks taking 50 bodies—each trip—to be buried.... (CODEHUCA Doc #24)

Shortly after the invasion ended, bulldozers excavated mass graves and shoveled in the bodies. “Buried like dogs,” said the mother of one of the civilian dead.5

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Human remains were incinerated and dumped into mass graves; thus making the actual death toll unknown.  It has been estimated that 3,000-6,000 Panamanians lost their lives.

During and after the invasion, the U.S. military enforced repressive actions against the Panamanian population which included:

* Illegal detentions of thousands of civilians.

* Illegal searches and seizures of unions, churches, government offices, opposition political parties, human rights groups and embassies of other countries.

* Unauthorized and illegal dismissals of more than 10,000 Panamanians from their jobs in the private and public sectors.6

In its brutal invasion of Panama, the U.S. military used a number of sophisticated weapons for the first time in combat—this against an unarmed civilian population. Thousands were killed, and whole neighborhoods were destroyed. Human remains were incinerated and dumped into mass graves, thus making the full death toll unknown.

It has been estimated that 3,000-6,000 Panamanians lost their lives. Foreign journalists were also killed in the invasion.

THE CRIMINALS:

President George H.W. Bush (Bush Sr.) was the president when the U.S. government planned and ordered the invasion. The New York Times reported that Bush said, ‘‘Let’s do it,” and that “[H]e also felt that the Panamanian leader, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, ‘was thumbing his nose at him.’ The President felt that General Noriega was getting more and more abusive and that at some point he would have to be dealt with...”7

Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense, and Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, oversaw “Operation Just Cause” from Washington, DC. Cheney had drafted the plan and it was refined and “significantly improved” by Powell following the October 3 coup attempt that failed to oust Noriega.8

They were responsible for having the Defense Department experiment with a new “super-weapon” during the invasion—the Lockheed F-117A stealth ground attack aircraft that delivers a 2,000-pound bomb with “pinpoint accuracy.”

Powell wrote in My American Journey that they settled on the name of the invasion “Operation Just Cause” because “Along with the inspirational ring, I liked something else about it. Even our severest critics would have to utter ‘Just Cause’ while denouncing us.”9

The U.S. media were cheerleaders for the invasion and complicit in the cover up of its crimes. Fairness  & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) reported, “Few TV reporters seemed to notice that the jubilant Panamanians parading before their cameras day after day to endorse the invasion spoke near-perfect English and were overwhelmingly light-skinned and well-dressed. This in a Spanish-speaking country with a largely mestizo and black population where poverty is widespread.”10

FAIR reports that “In the first days of the invasion, TV journalists had one overriding obsession: How many American soldiers have died? The question, repeated with drumbeat regularity, tended to drown out the other issues: Panamanian casualties, international law, foreign reaction.”

Ted Koppel of ABC’s Nightline told his audience, “Noriega’s reputation as a brutal drug-dealing bully who reveled in his public contempt for the United States all but begged for strong retribution” (December 20, 1989).11

The Panama Deception showed how the mainstream media uncritically adopted U.S. government propaganda about the invasion. The film exposes what the media refused to: the lies and distortions, the hypocrisy, the dead bodies, the survivors’ harrowing tales, and the complete impunity of the U.S. military in suppressing the truth.

THE ALIBI:

George H.W. Bush gave four reasons for the invasion in his address the day the invasion started:

The goals of the United States have been to safeguard the lives of Americans, to defend democracy in Panama, to combat drug trafficking and to protect the integrity of the Panama Canal Treaty [the Torrijos—Carter Treaties]. Many attempts have been made to resolve this crisis through diplomacy and negotiations. All were rejected by the dictator of Panama, Gen. Manuel Noriega, an indicted drug trafficker...[The] forces under his command shot and killed an unarmed American serviceman, wounded another, arrested and brutally beat a third American serviceman and then brutally interrogated his wife, threatening her with sexual abuse. That was enough.

General Noriega’s reckless threats and attacks upon Americans in Panama created an eminent danger to the 35,000 American citizens in Panama. As President, I have no higher obligation than to safeguard the lives of American citizens.12

The next day Bush said, “Our efforts to support the democratic processes in Panama and to ensure continued safety of American citizens is now moving into its second day.’”13

THE ACTUAL MOTIVE:

In reality, Bush knew that there was no concerted effort by Noriega to endanger U.S. citizens in Panama.

And he knew that Noriega had been involved in “drug trafficking”—on behalf of the U.S.! Noriega had been a CIA operative since 1967, providing the U.S. with valuable information about Cuba and anti-U.S. movements in Latin America. The U.S. knew of and made use of Noriega’s drug dealing. Under Reagan, the CIA paid Noriega $200,000 per year14 to allow the U.S. to ship weapons purchased in Poland through Panama into Nicaragua to the U.S.-backed Contras (armed right-wing groups), who were fighting the Sandinista government.15 The CIA paid for the weapons by trafficking cocaine—the “drugs-for-guns” trade that Noriega was a part of.

So these were pretexts to hide Bush’s real agenda: U.S. control of the Panama Canal in service of its imperialist domination of Latin America, its global dominance, and the “New World Order” Bush was attempting to hammer into place as the Soviet Union was falling. By 1989, the U.S. rulers felt Noriega had become unreliable and that his belligerence threatened these interests, particularly when administrative control of the Panama Canal was formally being shifted from the U.S. to Panama.

Even before the canal, Panama was of enormous geopolitical, economic and strategic military significance for the U.S. as it became a global power in the late 1800s. Then after the Panama Canal was built, the U.S. interest in this small strip of land focused on the strategic importance of the canal. “The Canal was crucial to U.S. global operations—its capitalist penetration of Latin America and Asia, and its ability to shift its military forces aggressively around the world.”16 (see the Revolution article “The U.S. Invasion of Panama 1989: The Injustice of ‘Operation Just Cause’”). Further, Panama provided the U.S. with military bases from which they could launch any military incursions into other countries in Latin America.

The Revolution article also pointed out:

In the 1970s, faced with defeat in Vietnam and growing challenges from its Soviet rivals, the U.S. ruling class decided to change how they exercised control over the Panama Canal Zone—from direct U.S. colonial control, to control through the Panamanian neocolonial government.

As that changeover approached, Noriega looked less and less like the man-for-the-job...[The invasion] represented a tightening of the U.S. grip on Panama and all of Latin America. It was one of the first new global moves (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) to push forward the U.S. as the world’s “only superpower”...17

The importance of Panama and the Panama Canal to the U.S. cannot be overstated. Controlling passage through the canal and being able to have military bases in that region in 1989 was a very high priority for the U.S. The Bush regime could not allow a belligerent leader in Panama with the canal’s administrative changeover to Panama only 10 years away.

The invasion of Panama with its brutality and overwhelming force, was a precursor for other U.S. invasions yet to come. On September 11, 1990, George H.W. Bush told Congress that the U.S. was going to implement a “New World Order,” under which the U.S. would use its brute force to enforce its role as the only superpower in the world. Next up was removing Saddam Hussein in Iraq. A few months after Bush’s speech, the U.S. invaded Iraq, killing and wounding “at least 100,000 Iraqis” in a six week period.18

 

Selected Bibliography

Blum, William, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II—Updated Through 2003, Common Courage Press, 2008.

“Central American Human Rights Commission (CODEHUCA) Panama Delegation Report to Peacenet”

Chomsky, Noam, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Odonian Press, 1992, the section on The Invasion of Panama.

“How Television Sold the Panama Invasion” by Jeff Cohen and Mark Cook, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

Musicant, Ivan, The Banana Wars: A History of the United States Military Intervention in Latin America from the Spanish-American War to the Invasion of Panama, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990.

“The 25th Anniversary of the Invasion of Panama” by Joseph Palermo, Huffington Post, February 18, 2015.

The Panama Deception, Director: Barbara Trent, Writer and Editor: David Kasper, Narrator: Elizabeth Montgomery, Released: Empowerment Project, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A Rhino Home Video Release, 1992.

The U.S. Invasion of Panama 1989: The Injustice of “Operation Just CauseRevolution #017, October 9, 2005.

“United States Invasion of Panama” from Wikipedia

 


1. Panama Strongman Said to Trade in Drugs, Arms and Illicit Money,” Seymour Hersh, June 12, 1986, New York Times. [back]

2. Central American Human Rights Commission (CODEHUCA) Panama Delegation Report to Peacenet, (The CODEHUCA report states, “The US invasion of Panama has been presented by the US government and the international media as a surgical strike that toppled the Manuel Noriega regime with minimal human and material cost. This report, prepared by a joint delegation of the Central American Human Rights Commission (CODEHUCA) and the Panamanian Human Rights Commission (CONADEHUPA), is based on testimonies and interviews collected on a recent fact-finding visit to Panama. It reveals that the reality of the Panamanian invasion, and the conditions under which the Panamanians now live, is fundamentally different from the image presented to the international community.” [back]

3. The Panama Deception, documentary film by the Empowerment Project, 1992, narrated by Elizabeth Montgomery and winner of the 1993 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. “The Panama Deception documents the untold story of the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama; the events which led to it; the excessive force used; the enormity of the death and destruction; and the devastating aftermath. The Panama Deception uncovers the real reasons for this internationally condemned attack, presenting a view of the invasion which widely differs from that portrayed by the U.S. media and exposes how the U.S. government and the mainstream media suppressed information about this foreign policy disaster.” The film asserts that the U.S. government invaded Panama primarily to destroy the PDF, the Panamanian Defense Forces, who were perceived as a threat to U.S. control over Panama, and to install a U.S.-approved government. The film includes footage of mass graves uncovered after the U.S. troops had withdrawn, burned down neighborhoods, as well as depictions of some of the 20,000 refugees who fled the fighting” (from the Empowerment Project). [back]

4. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II – Updated Through 2003, William Blum, Common Courage Press, 2008. [back]

5. How Our 1989 Invasion of Panama Explains the Current US Foreign Policy Mess,” Mother Jones, December 23, 2014. [back]

6. CODEHUDCA Report. [back]

7. Fighting in Panama: The President; A Sense of Inevitability In Bush's Decision to Act,” New York Times, December 24, 1989. [back]

8. “U.S. in No Hurry to Quit Panama,” by Thom Shanker and Timothy J. McNulty, Chicago Tribune, December 22, 1989. [back]

9. How the 1989 War on Manuel Noriega’s Panama Super-Charged US Militarism,” Nation, May 30, 2017. [back]

10. “How Television Sold the Panama Invasion”, FAIR.org. [back]

11. John Chancellor, commenting approvingly upon hearing only nine U.S. soldiers had died: “We lose numbers like that in large training exercises.” (NBC, 12/20/89) CNN anchor Ralph Wenge, interviewing a former U.S. military commander, said: “Noriega asked for this. President Bush listed all the things Noriega had done to force him to take action. Why does Noriega do these things?” (12/21/89). Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather all said similar things. [back]

12. “Fighting in Panama: The President,” New York Times, 12/21/89. [back]

13. “How Our 1989 Invasion of Panama Explains the Current US Foreign Policy Mess”, Mother Jones, December 23, 2014. [back]

14. “United States invasion of Panama“, Wikipedia. [back]

15. Musicant, Ivan, The Banana Wars: A History of the United States Military Intervention in Latin America from the Spanish-American War to the Invasion of Panama,  Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990, p. 391. [back]

16. “The U.S. Invasion of Panama 1989: The Injustice of ‘Operation Just Cause,’” Revolution, October 9, 2005. [back]

17. Ibid. [back]

18. “Tens of Thousands of Iraqi Soldiers' Bodies Left Behind : Casualties: Body count is practically impossible with victims in tanks, bunkers and roadside ditches”, by James Gerstenzang, Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1991. [back]

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