On This Day

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Manuel Noriega in U.S. custody

On This Day: US Forces Invade Panama

December 20, 2013 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 20, 1989, the U.S. launched an invasion of Panama to remove Gen. Manuel Noriega from power.

Operation Just Cause

Gen. Manuel Noriega, head of Panama's Defense Forces and de facto president since 1983, had worked with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency from the 1950s to the 1980s, aiding the U.S. in its bid to curb the spread of communism throughout Central and South America.

By the late 1980s, however, relations with Washington had become tense after a congressional panel concluded that he was playing a major role in Central American drug trafficking. On Feb. 5, 1988, he was indicted by U.S. grand jury on money laundering and drug trafficking charges, prompting President Ronald Reagan impose economic sanctions on the country.

In May 1989, Noriega’s handpicked presidential candidate lost the national election by a margin of three-to-one to Guillermo Endara. Noriega ignored the results and instituted repressive policies against his critics. President Bush ordered an additional 1,900 troops into Panama.

By the fall of 1989, Noriega was under intense pressure from inside and outside of Panama. The PDF launched an unsuccessful coup attempt, as Noriega’s allies in the country dwindled. On Dec. 15, Noriega declared himself the leader of Panama and said that the country was at war with the U.S.

The following day, a U.S. Marine was shot and killed by a member of the PDF. This provoked the U.S. to prepare an invasion. The purpose of the invasion, known as PLAN 90-2, was to “Protect U.S. lives and key sites and facilities,” “Capture and deliver Noriega to competent authority,” and “Neutralize PDF forces,” writes GlobalSecurity.org.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 20, U.S. troops began the invasion, nicknamed Operation Just Cause. “Reports from Panama said that American troops and tanks were moving on General Noriega's headquarters, with mortar and machine gunfire echoing through the city,” wrote The New York Times. “American citizens were ordered by the American military command in Panama to stay off the streets.”
U.S. troops targeted Noriega's headquarters in Panama City, and defeated most organized resistance quickly. Endara was sworn in as president as Noriega evaded U.S. forces. On Christmas Eve, he fled to the Vatican diplomatic mission in Panama City and secured himself inside.

U.S. troops surrounded the building and used a unique form psychological warfare to force Noriega out. They “set up loudspeakers and blasted away with rock music, which to the opera-loving Noriega must have been sheer cacophony,” wrote Time. “Among the titles: No Place to Run, Voodoo Chile and You're No Good.”

He surrendered on Jan. 3, 1990 and was flown to the United States to face charges of drug-trafficking, money laundering and racketeering, rendering Operation Just Cause a success.

In all, 23 U.S. soldiers were killed, while 324 were wounded, according to GlobalSecurity.org. An estimated 450 Panamanian troops were killed, while an estimated 200-300 Panamanian civilians were killed by U.S. or Panamanian forces.

Key Player: Gen. Manuel Noriega

Noriega was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in a Florida jail. His sentence, later reduced to 17 years, was completed on Sept. 9, 2007, but that did not lead to his immediate freedom. Panama refuses to accept him back in the country, and he remains in jail as the U.S. consider extraditing him to France, where he is wanted on money-laundering charges.

Reference: Reports on the Invasion and Noriega

The U.S. Army Center of Military History chronicles the military’s action in detail in the 2008 book “The U.S. Military Intervention in Panama: Origins, Planning and Crisis Managament” by Lawrence A. Yates, and the brochure “Operation Just Cause: The Incursion into Panama” by R. Cody Phillips.

The official U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff account of the operation is presented in a PDF document from the Defense Technical Information Center.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History has an archive of nearly 100 oral history interviews with American troops who participated in Operation Just Cause.

The Arlington Cemetery has compiled a list of the American casualties in the 1989 operation.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ November 1989 report “Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Panama” detailed the Noriega regime’s human rights violations.

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