United States Invasion of Panama

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A U.S. Marine Corps LAV-25 in Panama.

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Tactical map of Operation Just Cause showing major points of attack.

(Operation Just Cause) (1989)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Manuel Antonio Noriega, the president of Panama, and his Panamanian Defense Force vs. the United States

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Panama

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: In a climate of deteriorating relations between the United States and Panama’s dictator, the United States supported an alternative Panamanian government, then invaded the nation to arrest Noriega on drug-trafficking charges.

OUTCOME: Noriega was apprehended, brought to the United States for trial, convicted, and imprisoned.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: U. S. forces, 24,000; unspecified number of Panama Defense Force (PDF) troops

CASUALTIES: United States, 19 killed, 303 wounded; PDF, 314 killed, 124 wounded, 5,313 taken prisoner; numerous collateral civilian casualties

The 1989 invasion of Panama was unique in American military history as an act of war essentially directed against an individual, Manuel Antonio Noriega (b. 1938), the president of Panama. In 1988, Noriega had been indicted by a U. S. federal grand jury for drug trafficking. Following this, the administrations of both Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and George H. W. Bush (b. 1924) used economic and diplomatic sanctions to pressure the dictator into resigning. When these failed, the United States, in the spring of 1989, deployed additional marine units and army and air force units to U. S. installations in Panama. Noriega failed to take the hint. In October 1989, a coup attempt against Noriega by members of the Panamanian army was put down by troops loyal to him. This failure was followed by several incidents of harassment against U. S. citizens and then by Noriega’s issuance of a “declaration against the United States.” Shortly after this call to arms, Panamanian soldiers killed an off-duty U. S. Army officer. The events precipitated, on December 19, 1989, the U. S.-sanctioned creation of an alternative government for Panama, led by President Gullermo Endara (b. 1936), who was sworn in by a Panamanian judge at a U. S. military base. Early the next morning, December 20, Operation Just Cause began.

It began when U. S. F-117 stealth fighters bombed the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) barracks. The raid was the combat debut of the new fighter, and Operation Just Cause would also serve as the maiden battle of the army’s innovative light infantry and special operations forces, which had been trained specifically for such operations. The army would be responsible for the major aspects of the operation, but among the 24,000 troops, navy SEALs, air force personnel, and Air National Guard units also participated.

The object of the operation was to capture Noriega. Marines were assigned to guard the entrances to the Panama Canal and other U. S. defense sites located in the Canal Zone. Rangers and other special task forces were dropped by Apache attack helicopters over key points in the Canal Zone. Troops aboard M-113 armored personnel carriers emerged from Fort Sherman and rode through the streets of Panama City, engaging whatever PDF units they encountered. The Rangers, reinforced by marines, moved toward the central Canal Zone, pausing to attack the Commandancia, headquarters of Noriega and the PDF. Simultaneously, other task forces guarded the western entrances of the Panama Canal opposite Balboa and Panama City as well as other U. S. defense sites located in the Canal Zone. These forces were assigned to block the PDF from infiltrating the Canal Zone and from moving reinforcements from Panama City. American units also took and held Torrijos International Airport, the Bridge of the Americas, and Rio Hato airfield, 90 miles south of Panama City. Another task force secured all U. S. military bases, and yet another was assigned to free prisoners taken by the PDF. Air force and Air National Guard units provided continuous close-air support for the ground troops.

For the first time in its history, the Panama Canal was closed; it would reopen on December 21. Fighting continued for five days, house to house, as marines conducted a manhunt for PDF troops as well as for Noriega, who had disappeared. In the meantime, a special civil-affairs Rangers battalion was airlifted to Panama City to assist President Endara in establishing order. The civil-affairs Rangers also went about creating a new police force, the Panama Public Force, to preserve civil order after U. S. troops withdrew.

By this time, the United States had learned that Noriega had sought refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama City, but was refused sanctuary. Not until January 1990 was he located, arrested, and transported to the United States for trial, which began in Miami in the fall of 1991. Witnesses testified that Noriega had laundered Colombian drug money in Panama and had used his country as a clearinghouse for cocaine on its way to the United States. On April 10, 1992, Noriega was convicted on eight counts of cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. He was sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment. For the first time in history, the United States had captured, tried, convicted, and punished a head of state for criminal wrongdoing.

Further reading: Thomas Donnelly, Operation Just Cause: The Storming of Panama (New York: Lexington Books, 1991); Malcolm McConnell, Just Cause: The Real Story of America’s High-Tech Invasion of Panama (New York: St. Martin’s, 1991).

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