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Panama Invasion


PANAMA INVASION (1989). The invasion of Panama by U.S. forces in December 1989 was designed in part to end the rule of General Manuel Antonio Noriega. A graduate of the Peruvian Military Academy in 1962, he had supported Colonel Omar Torrijos Herrera, the ruler of Panama, during an attempted coup against the latter in 1969. Noriega soon became head of the Panamanian military intelligence service and served Torrijos for a decade as chief of security. Two years after Torrijos's death in an airplane crash in 1981, Noriega became commander of the Guardia Nacional, renamed the Panama Defense Forces (PDF). Torrijos and subsequently Noriega aided the U.S.-sponsored Contras with arms and supplies in their struggle against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. American officials excused the corrupt and brutal nature of Noriega's regime on the grounds that he supported the U.S. effort to stop communist penetration of Latin America. Noriega's involvement with the Medellín drug cartel in the 1980s and the emergence of Panama as a money-laundering site proved far more lucrative than receiving U.S. support because of assistance to the Contras.

In 1987 a feud between Noriega and his chief of staff, Roberto Diaz Herrera, led to Diaz's publicly charging Noriega with crimes and encouraged Panamanian opponents to demand Noriega's resignation. Noriega responded with arrests and brutality. Secret negotiations between Panamanian and U.S. representatives designed to facilitate Noriega's departure broke down. The U.S. Justice Department filed indictments against Noriega in federal court; soon afterward the U.S. government imposed a series of economic sanctions. The United States sent additional military forces to the Canal Zone in Panama, recalled its ambassador, and encouraged PDF officers to overthrow Noriega. An attempted coup in 1989 failed and led to executions. The media criticized President George Bush and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney for failing to provide more support to the coup leaders. The U.S. military drew up plans for an invasion, which began when a U.S. serviceman died from gunfire outside PDF headquarters on 16 December 1989.

Operation Just Cause began on 20 December and lasted through 24 December. The PDF numbered 5,000, augmented by 8,000 paramilitary troops organized in "dignity battalions." The 13,000 U.S. troops stationed in Panama were reinforced by an additional 9,000. Fighting centered around Noriega's headquarters in Panama City. Noriega took refuge with the papal nuncio (the Vatican's representative in Panama) but surrendered on 3 January 1990. Twenty-three U.S. soldiers were killed during the invasion. Panamanian deaths—military and civilian—exceeded 500. U.S. public opinion supported the operation but many foreign governments did not. A new civilian regime took control in Panama and the country experienced severe economic problems and a troubled security situation for months afterward. Noriega became a federal prisoner in Miami on 4 January 1990; he was tried and convicted in April 1992 of cocaine smuggling and given a life sentence. Political and economic stability remained an elusive commodity in Panama; nationalist resentment against the United States surged. Under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty negotiated by the Carter administration in the 1970s, Panama regained control of the Canal Zone in 1999, a historic transfer of power that at least partially assuaged anti-Americanism in Panama.


Bush, George, and Brent Scowcroft. A World Transformed. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Flanagan Jr., Edward. Battle for Panama: Inside Operation Just Cause. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1993.

Parmet, Herbert S. George Bush: The Life of a Lone Star Yankee. New York: Scribner, 1997.

Woodward, Bob. The Commanders. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Richard W.Turk/a. g.

See alsoContra Aid ; Defense, Department of ; Defense, National ; Grenada Invasion ; Mexico, Punitive Expedition into ; Nicaragua, Relations with ; Panama Canal ; Unconditional Surrender .

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