The 1989 Invasion of Panama

Urban combat in Panama, 1989.
Urban combat in Panama, 1989.

On December 20th, 1989, President Bush launched a military operation code-named “Operation Just Cause” to topple the dictatorial government of Manuel Noriega in Panama. The invasion involved about 24,000 US troops who had orders to oust the leader and execute a warrant for his arrest on drug trafficking charges. The US forces had the backing of well-equipped military hardware. The military campaign was rather short as it lasted for only two months, beginning on December 20, 1989 and ended on January 31, 1990.

5. Background

In the 1980s, Panama was a country of great significance to the US mainly due to the presence of the Panama Canal, a critical shipping route for American ships. The Panama Canal, which had been constructed primarily by the US government, was partially under the control of the Panama government with a plan for it to be fully handed over to the Latin American country by the year 2000. The small nation also hosted several US military bases which were strategic during the America-Russia Cold War because of Panama's relative proximity to Cuba. The country’s president at the time was Manuel Noriega who had notably previously served as a paid informant for the Central Intelligence Agency and was of great help in the international war on the drug trade. Noriega had facilitated the movement of weapons into Latin America in an effort to arm pro-western forces in the time of the Cold War. George H. W. Bush has been at the head of CIA from 1976 – 1977. Noriega had sided with the US and not the Soviet Union in Latin America. He received more than $100,000 annually from the 1960s up to 1980s, when it was increased to $20,000.

Noriega worked closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to curb the illegal drug shipments. On the other hand, he also received financial support from drug dealers and facilitated laundering drug money, because he had a special relationship with the CIA and could not be investigated by DEA. In the 1980s, the relationship between Noriega and the US was deteriorating. In 1986, Ronald Reagan opened negotiations urging Noriega to step down as he had been exposed publicly by the New York Times for his involvement with the illicit drug trade. Noriega was pressured and indicted on several drug-related charges in US courts. In 1988, a US invasion was planned, but President Reagan refused because the ties Noriega had with Bush as head of CIA, which could potentially affect Bush’s presidential campaign. In later negotiations, the charges of drug trafficking were dropped. In March 1988, Noriega’s forces resisted the coup attempt to topple the Panamanian government. As the relations deteriorated further, Noriega shifted allegiance to the Soviet bloc where he received military aid from Libya, Nicaragua, and Cuba. The US military planners started preparing plans to invade Panama. In May 1989, Panama conducted its general elections where Noriega’s primary opponents gained majority votes only to have the government reject the results and cling to power. Then on December 16, 1989 a convoy of US military personnel was attacked in the nation’s capital prompting President Bush to order the commencing of Operation Just Cause.

4. Makeup

The US military was deployed to the tiny country and comprised of units from the US Army, US Air Force, The US Navy, and The US Marines. The Panamanian Defense Forces had only 16,000 officers. The operation involved 27,684 US troops and more than 300 aircraft, which included the C-130 Hercules tactical which was equipped with Adverse Weather Aerial Delivery System (AWADS), AC-130 Spectre gunship, C-141 Starlifter, OA-37B dragonfly observation and attack aircraft, C-5 Galaxy strategic transport, AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, and other specialized military aircraft. Air logistics was given by the 22nd Air Force and air assistance from the 60th, 62nd, and 63rd military airlift wings. The Panama incursion was the first combat for the AH-64 and the F-117.

3. Description

The US military invasion began on 20th, December 1989 at 1:00 am local time. The first course of action was to destroy all strategic installations including the Punta Paitilla Airport, Army garrisons and jamming the Panamanian radar units using EF-111As of 266th TFW and 390th ECS. Several air assaults were critical in the capture of significant towns and cities with the deployment of paratroopers. There were some scattered from Panamanian Defense Force (PDF). By December 24, the PDCF had been crushed, and the US forces held most of the country. With defeat being evident, President Noriega sought refuge in a Vatican diplomatic mission in the capital city. However, the US forces used psychological strategies to flush him out and capture him by playing loud rock music at the diplomatic residence. Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990 when he was captured and then flown to the US.

2. Outcome

The war had a duration of two months and resulted in many casualties with some organizations reporting deaths of over 3,000 Panamanian civilians. Both warring sides lost military officers with the US reporting 23 deaths from its forces and three civilians, while the Panama Defense Forces reported 150 deaths and 500 civilians. The war also displaced many from their homes, resulting in thousands of refugees. The European Parliament and the Organization of American States made a formal protest against the invasion and condemned it as a blatant violation of international law. In 1992, Noriega was charged on eight counts of money laundering, racketeering, and drug trafficking. He was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in a federal prison, although later it was reduced to 30 years.

1. Significance

The Invasion of Panama is considered by scholars as a precursor to the Gulf War where the US government showed the world its military capacity. The war, while relatively short, strained diplomatic relations between the US and several Latin American nations with Peru recalling its ambassador from the US in protest. Noriega’s case became the very first in the Jury’s history where a foreign leader was convicted of criminal charges.


More in Society