Panama: Made in the USA

Panama: Made in the USA

by John Weeks, Phil Gunson


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How did Manuel Noriega, the CIA's most important agent in Central America, become the US administration's most wanted criminal? Why did 22,000 US troops invade Panama, to arrest a man who had been a staunch ally of the US? Was his involvement in the drug trade the real reason for General Noriega's downfall? Panama: Made in the USA explores the unanswered questions behind the invasion of December 1989 and looks at the turbulent history of US-Panamanian relations, in particular the bitter struggle for control of the Panama Canal. It analyzes the economic and geo-strategic importance of a country literally created by and for the US government. Looking at Panama since the invasion, the authors explore the challenge facing the US-installed Endara government as rebuilds a country shattered by invasion and US sanctions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780906156551
Publisher: Latin America Bureau
Publication date: 01/01/1990
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

John. F. Weeks is Professor of International Politics and Economics at MIddlebury College. An internationally recognized development economist with extensive policy-related work in developing countries including Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia, Jamaica, Peru, and Nicaragua, he has served as consultant for most of the major multilateral agencies, including the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

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Operation 'Just Cause'

The twentieth US military intervention in Panama began slightly ahead of schedule, at half-past-midnight on 20 December 1989. Thirty minutes before 'H-hour' the 6th Mechanised Battalion of the US Army's 5th Division, supported by four Sheridan light tanks, began its advance on the Panama Defence Forces (Fuerzas de Defensa de Panama — FDP) headquarters, the Comandancia. Word of the invasion had leaked out, and the head of the Panama-based US Southern Command (Southcom), General Max Thurman, was anxious to move fast.

Task Force Bayonet, of which the tanks and armoured personnel carriers were part, was charged with decapitating the FOP. Two assault companies, helicoptered in from Howard Air Force Base just across the Panama Canal, blocked off support from nearby Fort Amador. An infantry battalion and helicopter gunships were also involved in the main assault. The troops knew their target. Most had been in Panama since the abortive election seven months earlier and they were hardly likely to lose their way.

The invasion relied on overwhelming force. In addition to over 13,000 troops already stationed at US bases in Panama, Washington ordered in a further 7,000, including Rangers, Marines, Special Forces and the 82nd Airborne (veterans of the 1983 Grenada invasion). Subsequent reinforcements brought the total to over 26,000. In all, it was the most extensive US military operation since the Vietnam war, and involved the biggest combat paratroop drop (4,500) since the Allied attempt to seize the Rhine bridges in 1944.

The airborne troops, flying in from six US bases, had the job of preventing the FOP's elite units — Battalion 2000 and the Machos de Monte — from reinforcing the Panama City garrison. They also had to seize key points such as the Omar Torrijos international airport and vulnerable installations like the Sierra Tigre power station and the Madden Dam (whose reservoir supplies the water for the Panama Canal), and release some 50 prisoners whose lives might otherwise have been threatened.

It was scarcely surprising that the FDP knew something was about to happen. Throughout the previous day, military cargo aircraft had been landing at Howard, bringing supplies and equipment for the invasion. Moreover (according to Newsweek magazine), there had been at least a dozen security leaks, and rumours were spreading.

As the invasion began, a foreign journalist who had been hoping for a quiet Christmas was on the phone in the lobby of the Hotel Ejecutivo, trying to convince an editor in London that rumours of an invasion were exaggerated. At that moment the first bombs dropped.

The seismological station at the University of Panama registered 417 explosions over the following 14 hours — one bomb every two minutes. Compared to the bombings of Hanoi and other Vietnamese cities in the early 1970s, this rain of destruction was relatively benign — considerably less than the payload of one of the B52s that plied the long route from Guam in the South Pacific to the crowded cities of Indochina.

Even so, the 417 explosions that night brought death and misery to the poorer quarters of Panama City, clustered around military installations the invaders had to take at all costs. Around 15,000 Panamanians celebrated Christmas Day in makeshift accommodation after their homes had been destroyed.

For the residents of the exclusive Punta Paitilla district, in their high-rise apartments across the bay from the Comandancia, the rockets, bombs and tracer bullets were little more dangerous than a spectacular firework display. Some sat in their living rooms with a panoramic view of the action - glass in hand to toast the downfall of the military regime many of them detested.

Due care was taken not to disturb them unnecessarily. Just down the road lay Paitilla airport, where the most wanted man in Panama at that moment — FDP commander General Manuel Noriega — kept his personal jet. US Southcom assigned this target to the US Navy's elite SEAL commandos, who were ordered to disable the plane at close quarters in order to avoid 'collateral damage' from stray rounds to diplomatic residences in the vicinity. This high-risk option cost the lives of four SEALs.

No such concern for civilians, however, governed operations in El Chorrillo district, the slum area immediately around the Comandancia. In order to minimise US casualties, the FDP headquarters 'was shelled from at least two directions for about four hours before US troops approached it at dawn,' according to a report by the human rights organisation Americas Watch. Not surprisingly, this took a heavy toll in civilian lives.

Southcom gave no warning to the civilian population until US ground troops entered the area, when they used loudspeakers to order residents to evacuate. Earlier, while the shelling was continuing, US helicopters had broadcast surrender calls to the FDP troops. Southcom told Americas Watch that there was no overriding military requirement that would have prevented the same system being used to provide a warning to civilians (and thereby to save lives) — yet none was given.

With some exceptions — such as the Paitilla airport operation Southcom strategy was to avoid US casualties. A university professor who watched the assault on the Gamboa military police barracks noted that the US troops 'didn't want [to sustain] casualties and they were taking great care of themselves'. Made of wood, the barracks offered no protection to the defenders. 'So the Americans shouted to them to surrender ... I saw three soldiers come out of the barracks and they were immediately machine-gunned, so the rest of the troops carried on shooting and didn't surrender.' 'American casualties are the ones that count,' the professor added, 'the casualties of the people can be any number but they don't count.'

Americas Watch, too, condemned the double standards:

'At the very moment in which the attack on the (FOP) headquarters started, a Delta Force team of US troops conducted a daring commando raid on the Carcel Modelo, Panama's central penitentiary, located just across the street from the Comandancia. The purpose of the raid ... was to rescue US citizen Kurt Muse, a (CIA) operative jailed there. There was no resistance from the guards and the jail was left open so that the majority of common crime offenders escaped ... In our view, this carefully planned and risky operation stands in contrast with the absolute lack of concern for the safety of thousands of innocent civilians in El Chorrillo.'

El Chorrillo was home to around 30,000 people, most of them living in ramshackle wooden buildings built early this century to house the labourers who built the Panama Canal. The remainder occupied a number of residential tower blocks, known as multifamiliares, or multis. Despite the lateness of the hour, many were still awake- reading, watching a tv soap opera, catching up on household chores.

A fisherman who lived in El Chorrillo's 25th Street had gone across the road to the corner shop to buy cigarettes when the bombing started:

'The owner of the shop shut the doors and told me to get down on the floor. For a good while I felt the heat on my back from the house next door, which was on fire. Then for a moment the shooting stopped and I was able to run out of the shop. In the street I met a friend who had been wounded and he asked me to help him. We ran and stood up against a wall, there was a burst of gunfire and when I looked round my friend had been killed. I ran, and in the streets I saw children, women, old people, dead men, and the tanks were running over their bodies. People think it was nothing what happened, but if they'd lived through what we did ... It was terrible. My family lost everything.'

Southcom admitted that the fires which broke out in El Chorrillo may partly have been caused by flares and tracer bullets used by US troops. Exploding tanks of household gas set off other blazes. However, some seem to have been set deliberately, by unidentified men in plain clothes. Whatever their origin, the fires destroyed several city blocks and took a heavy toll in civilian lives.

There was never any doubt as to who would win the battle of Panama City. On paper, the FOP's strength stood at some 16,000, but this included police and other non-military personnel. No more than 5,000 of its number could in any sense be regarded as combat troops. Many were simply traffic police or customs officers. The Panamanians had no effective military radar, anti-aircraft batteries or true air force. They were up against the world's greatest military power, using the latest technology: Apache helicopter gunships; the awesome AC-130 aircraft, equipped with everything up to howitzers and capable of firing 17,000 rounds of ammunition a minute; even the F117 A 'stealth' ground-attack aircraft, whose radar-invisibility was wholly irrelevant in the circumstances and whose intervention was intended to convince a sceptical Congress to fund its production.

The stealth aircraft dropped their 2,000lb bombs with what US Defense Secretary Dick Cheney described as 'pinpoint accuracy'. However, he later admitted under pressure that at least one of the bombs landed so far from the target that Southcom had to mount a search to find the point of impact.

Most FOP units surrendered fairly quickly, but with General Noriega on the run it took US troops several days to bring the military situation under a semblance of control. Panamanian soldiers who had shed their uniforms continued to put up resistance, along with members of the paramilitary Dignity Battalions, created by Noriega in 1988.

The failure to capture Noriega immediately was only one of the flaws in an operation which its planner, General Carl Stiner, hailed as so successful that 'there were no lessons learned.' As in Grenada, many of the US casualties (perhaps up to 60 per cent) were self-inflicted. Nine of the 23 US soldiers killed died as a result of 'friendly fire'.

Spanish news photographer Juantxu Rodríguez died in just such an incident, outside the Marriott Hotel. He was caught in crossfire when two different US units apparently mistook each other for Panamanians. The New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists judged the US government's response to its questions about this incident 'unsatisfactory'. However Washington denied any obligation to compensate Rodríguez' family, who have sued the Pentagon for a million dollars.

In the aftermath of the invasion, after having destroyed the FOP as a police force as well as an army, the US military authorities made no attempt to fill the policing vacuum. The result was an orgy of looting in Panama City and Colon, organised in some cases by the Dignity Battalions, which caused losses calculated at $1.2 billion. US Assistant Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who arrived in early January at the head of a group of senior Bush administration officials, dismissed suggestions of US responsibility for the destruction. Insurance companies, meanwhile, claimed that losses from looting fell under their war exclusion clauses, exempting them from the need to pay compensation. Over 60 companies, including US subsidiaries, subsequently filed a lawsuit against the US government for damages.

For these glorious feats of arms the Pentagon was reported to have ordered 44,000 Combat Infantryman Badges, even though only 2,500 of its troops actually engaged in combat. The handful of women honoured are in any case not entitled to their medals, since regulations forbid their going into combat at all.

The Department of Defense claimed that some of the badges will be used for extra uniforms and souvenirs (which must explain why the medals outnumber the total troops involved by almost two to one). But some idea of the rigorous criteria applied can be gleaned from the 18 Purple Hearts (awarded to those wounded in action) that have been requested for paratroopers who broke or sprained their ankles when landing. This cavalier approach to military honours followed the precedent set by the invasion of Grenada in 1983, when the 20,000 troops involved were awarded 28,802 medals.

Selective Chivalry

The official code name for the invasion was Operation Just Cause, picked at the last minute by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to replace the random computer designation 'Blue Spoon'. The name has a defensive air about it, suggesting that Washington anticipated that world opinion would overwhelming reject its unilateral military action.

Senior government figures, including Cheney and President Bush himself, had gone on record as rejecting the military option following the failed coup attempt of 3 October. Bush had said military intervention was 'not prudent, and that's not the way I plan to conduct the military or foreign affairs of this country.' Explaining the sudden U-turn, Cheney said:

'I think we as a government bent over backward to avoid having to take military action. I think the record is replete with the patience and forbearance of the US government in this instance. When it reached the point, however, when it was clear that American lives were at risk, when it reached the point where it was clear that General Noriega had created an environment in which his troops felt free to terrorise and brutalise Americans who had every legitimate and lawful right to be in Panama, that was a fundamentally different set of circumstances.'

Bush himself set out these circumstances in more detail in his address to the nation on the morning of 20 December:

'Last Friday, Noriega declared his military dictatorship to be in a state of war with the US, and publicly threatened the lives of Americans in Panama. The very next day, 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.'

But was it? The circumstances leading up to the invasion provide no moral or legal justification for the overthrow of a foreign government, the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians and the removal for trial in the US of the head of state of a country whose constitution forbids the extradition of its citizens.

Bush gave four main reasons for his action:

• to safeguard the lives of US citizens

• to defend democracy in Panama

• to combat drug trafficking [primarily by apprehending Manuel Noriega and bringing him to trial in the US], and

• to 'protect the integrity' of the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties.

With regard to American lives, Southcom had at its disposal in Panama 13,000 troops who were better armed, trained and coordinated than the FDP. This force was more than adequate to protect US civilians. Further, protecting US lives did not require an attack on the old city of Panama, nor pitched battles in working-class barrios. If anything, the invasion endangered US civilians (not to mention US soldiers) by leaving them vulnerable to hostage-taking. One hostage was indeed killed — Ray Dragseth, a professor of computer science at the Panama Canal College, who was taken from his apartment by armed men just after the invasion.

As Alexander Cockburn pointed out in the magazine New Statesman & Society (12 January 1990), concerning the President's outrage at the treatment of the US officer's wife, 'Bush's chivalry is sparingly dispensed'. Cockburn contrasted the invasion of Panama with US inaction over the kidnap and torture only a month earlier of a US nun, Sister Diana Ortiz, by Guatemalans apparently operating with police protection. The State Department justified its failure to act by saying that the matter came under Guatemalan jurisdiction.

Nor does the argument that the invasion was needed to 'defend democracy' withstand scrutiny. Late in the evening of 19 December, Southcom summoned the leaders of the civilian opposition, Guillermo Endara, Ricardo Arias Calderon and Guillermo Ford to a US military base, Fort Clayton. At around 2am they were sworn in as President and First and Second Vice-Presidents respectively, in a ceremony witnessed by two leaders of the Panamanian Human Rights Committee. Fort Clayton remained the seat of the new government for about 30 hours, before Endara' s provisional headquarters was moved to the Legislative Assembly building.

One of the five Panamanians present at the dubious investiture, speaking anonymously to the Miami Herald, said, 'we were taken to Fort Clayton at about midnight, and told we couldn't make outside phone calls or leave the room. The ceremony took place at about 2am, and we agreed to say it had taken place in Panamanian territory.'

Observers of the May 1989 election, in which Endara, Arias and Ford headed the opposition ADOC coalition, had concluded that the opposition had won an overwhelming victory. The Noriega regime had annulled the results because its own COLINA alliance, headed by Carlos Duque, had fared so badly that even massive fraud could not hide the true result. In this sense, the ADOC leaders were undoubtedly more entitled to form a government than the regime they replaced. But the circumstances of their coming to power seriously undermined their legitimacy. Endara himself admitted that they had not even been consulted about the invasion, merely 'informed'. He added that it had been 'like a kick in the head' and that he 'would have been happier without it'.


Excerpted from "Panama"
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Copyright © 2018 John Weeks and Phil Gunson.
Excerpted by permission of Practical Action Publishing.
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Table of Contents

Map — Panama, iv,
— Canal Zone, v,
Panama in Brief, vi,
Acronyms, viii,
Principal Political Parlies and Groupings, x,
Chronology, xiii,
Charter of the Organization of American States, xxix,
Statement of Understanding appended to the Panama Canal Treaty,
Introduction: Of Rights and Wrongs, 1,
Chapter 1. Operation 'just Cause', 3,
Chapter 1. Canals and Colonies, 18,
Chapter 3. Our Man in Panama, 45,
Chapter 4. Failing to Get the General, 71,
Chapter 5. Picking up the Pieces, 39,
Conclusion: Made in the USA, 110,
Appendix 1. US Violations of International Law, 113,
Appendix 2. The Human Rights Records of the Noriega and Endara Governments, 119,
Further Reading, 127,
Index, 129,

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