The United States Invasion of Panama, code-named Operation Just Cause, was the invasion of Panama by the United States in December 1989. It occurred during the administration of U.S. President George H. W. Bush, and ten years after the Torrijos–Carter Treaties were ratified to transfer control of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama by January 1, 2000.
The United States long maintained numerous military bases and a substantial garrison throughout the Canal Zone to protect the American-owned Panama Canal. On September 7, 1977, President of the United States Jimmy Carter and the de facto leader of Panama, General Omar Torrijos, signed Torrijos–Carter Treaties, which set in motion the process of handing over the Panama Canal to Panamanian control by the year 2000. Although the canal was destined for Panamanian administration, the military bases remained and one condition of the transfer was that the canal would remain open for American shipping.
Meanwhile, the U.S. had long-standing relations with General Noriega. Noriega served as a U.S. intelligence asset and paid informant of the Central Intelligence Agency since 1967, including when Bush was head of the CIA (1976–77).
Noriega had sided with the U.S. rather than the USSR in Central America, notably in sabotaging the forces of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and the revolutionaries of the FMLN group in El Salvador. Noriega received upwards of $100,000 per year from the 1960s until the 1980s, when his salary was increased to $200,000 per year, for his loyalty and efforts against the much better-funded, Soviet-backed groups. Although he worked with the Drug Enforcement Administration to restrict illegal drug shipments, he was known to simultaneously accept significant financial support from drug dealers, because he facilitated the laundering of drug money, and through Noriega they received protection from DEA investigations due to his special relationship with the CIA.
Beginning in the middle of the 1980s, relations between Noriega and the United States started to deteriorate. In 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan started negotiations with General Noriega, requesting that the Panamanian leader peacefully step down after Noriega was publicly exposed in the New York Times by Seymour Hersh, and later exposed in the Iran-Contra Scandal. Reagan pressured him with several drug-related indictments in U.S. courts; however, since extradition laws between Panama and the U.S. were weak, Noriega deemed this threat not credible and did not bend to Reagan’s efforts. In 1988, Elliot Abrams and members of the Pentagon began pushing for a U.S. invasion, but Reagan refused, due to Bush’s ties to Noriega through his previous positions with the CIA and the Task Force on Drugs, and their negative impact on Bush’s presidential campaign. Later negotiations involved dropping the drug-trafficking indictments. In March 1988, an attempted coup against the government of Panama was resisted by Noriega’s forces. As relations continued to deteriorate, Noriega appeared to shift his Cold War allegiance towards the Soviet bloc, soliciting and receiving military aid from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya. American military planners began preparing contingency plans for action against Panama.
In May 1989, during the Panamanian national elections, an alliance of parties opposed to the military dictatorship of Noriega counted results from the country’s election precincts before they were sent to the district centers. Their tally showed their candidate, Guillermo Endara, defeating Carlos Duque, candidate of a pro-Noriega coalition, by a nearly 3-to-1 margin. Endara was beaten up by Noriega supporters the next day in his motorcade. Noriega declared the election null and maintained power by force, making him unpopular among Panamanians. Noriega’s government insisted that it had won the presidential election and that irregularities had been on the part of U.S.-backed candidates from opposition parties. Bush called on Noriega to honor the will of the Panamanian people.
In October 1989, Noriega foiled a second coup attempt by members of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), led by Major Moisés Giroldi.  Pressure mounted on Bush as the media labeled him a “wimp” for failing to aid Panama in spite of campaign rhetoric that called for a tough stand against known drug traffickers.  Bush declared that the U.S. would not negotiate with a known drug trafficker and denied having any knowledge of Noriega’s involvement with the drug trade prior to his February 1988 indictment, although Bush had met with Noriega while Director of the CIA and had been the Chair of the Task Force on Drugs while Vice President. 
On December 15, the Panamanian general assembly passed a resolution declaring that the actions of the United States had caused a state of war to exist between Panama and the United States. 
The sense of crisis was greatly intensified by an incident the next day. Four U.S. military personnel were stopped at a roadblock around 9:00 PM outside PDF headquarters in the El Chorrillo neighborhood of Panama City. The four officers were Marine Captain Richard E. Hadded, Navy Lieutenant Michael J. Wilson, Army Captain Barry L. Rainwater, and Marine First Lieutenant Robert Paz. The four officers had left the Fort Clayton military base and were on their way to have dinner at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Panama City. The U.S. Department of Defense reported that the servicemen had been unarmed and in a private vehicle and that they attempted to flee the scene only after their vehicle was surrounded by an angry crowd of civilians and PDF troops. The PDF asserted later that the Americans were armed and on a reconnaissance mission. The PDF opened fire on the four officers as they attempted to flee the angry mob. Lieutenant Paz was fatally wounded by a round that entered the rear of the vehicle and struck him in the back. Captain Hadded, the driver of the vehicle, was also wounded in the foot. Paz was rushed to Gorgas Army Hospital but died of his wounds. He received the Purple Heart posthumously. 
According to U.S. military sources, a U.S. naval officer and his wife witnessed the incident and were subsequently detained by Panamanian Defense Force soldiers. While in police custody, they were assaulted by the PDF. The U.S. naval officer spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from his beating. His wife was not injured but was sexually threatened by PDF soldiers. 
The next day, President Bush ordered the execution of the Panama invasion plan; the military set H-Hour as 0100 on December 20. 
United States’ justification for the invasion
The official U.S. justification for the invasion was articulated by President George H. W. Bush on the morning of December 20, 1989, a few hours after the start of the operation. Bush listed four reasons for the invasion:
- Safeguarding the lives of U.S. citizens in Panama. In his statement, Bush claimed that Noriega had declared that a state of war existed between the U.S. and Panama and that he threatened the lives of the approximately 35,000 U.S. citizens living there. There had been numerous clashes between U.S. and Panamanian forces; one U.S. Marine had been killed a few days earlier.
- Defending democracy and human rights in Panama.
- Combating drug trafficking. Panama had become a center for drug money laundering and a transit point for drug trafficking to the U.S. and Europe.
- Protecting the integrity of the Torrijos–Carter Treaties. Members of Congress and others in the U.S. political establishment claimed that Noriega threatened the neutrality of the Panama Canal and that the U.S. had the right under the treaties to intervene militarily to protect the canal.
U.S. military forces were instructed to begin maneuvers and activities within the restrictions of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, such as ignoring PDF roadblocks and conducting short-notice “Category Three” military exercises on security-sensitive targets, with the express goal of provoking PDF soldiers. U.S. SOUTHCOM kept a list of abuses against U.S. servicemen and civilians by the PDF while the orders to incite PDF soldiers were in place. As for the Panamanian legislature’s declaration of a state of war between the U.S. and Panama, Noriega insists that this statement referred to a state of war directed by the U.S. against Panama, in the form of what he claimed were harsh economic sanctions and constant, provocative military maneuvers (Operations Purple Storm and Sand Flea) that were prohibited by the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. The U.S. had turned a blind eye to Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking since the 1970s. Noriega was then singled out for direct involvement in these drug trafficking operations due to the widespread public knowledge of his involvement in money laundering, drug activities, political murder, and human rights abuses. Panama, before the contended declaration of war against the U.S., had instigated no hostile actions against any other country.
Bush’s four reasons for the invasion provided sufficient justification to establish bipartisan Congressional approval and support for the invasion. However, the secrecy before initiation, the speed and success of the invasion itself, and U.S. public support for it (80% public approval) did not allow Democrats to object to Bush’s decision to use military force. Contemporary studies reveal a high probability that Bush decided to invade for domestic political reasons, citing scarce strategic reasoning for the U.S. to invade and immediate withdrawal without establishing the structure to enforce the interests that Bush used to justify the invasion. Two days before the invasion, on December 18, Panama announced that the U.S. was planning an invasion of Panama.
The U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Marines participated in Operation Just Cause. Ground forces consisted of combat elements of the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 82nd Airborne Division, the 7th Infantry Division (Light), the 75th Ranger Regiment, a Joint Special Operations Task Force, elements of the 5th Infantry Division (1st Battalion, 61st U.S. Infantry and 4th Battalion, 6th United States Infantry (replacing 1\61st in September 1989)), 1138th Military Police Company of the Missouri Army National Guard, 193rd Infantry Brigade, 508th Infantry Regiment, the 59th Engineer Co. (Sappers), Marine Security Forces Battalion Panama, and elements from the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams,2nd Armored Infantry Battalion, and 2nd Marine Logistics Group 39th Combat Engineer Btn. Charlie Co.
The military incursion into Panama began on December 20, 1989, at 1:00 a.m. local time. The operation involved 27,684 U.S. troops and over 300 aircraft, including C-130 Hercules tactical transports flown by the 317th Tactical Airlift Wing (which was equipped with the Adverse Weather Aerial Delivery System or AWADS) and 314th Tactical Airlift Wing, AC-130 Spectre gunship,OA-37B Dragonfly observation and attack aircraft, C-141 Starlifter strategic transports, F-117A Nighthawk stealth aircraft flown by the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing, and AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. The invasion of Panama was the first combat deployment for the AH-64, the HMMWV, and the F-117A. Panamanian radar units were jammed by two EF-111As of the 390th ECS, 366th TFW. These aircraft were deployed against the 46,000 members of the PDF.
The operation began with an assault of strategic installations, such as the civilian Punta Paitilla Airport in Panama City and a PDF garrison and airfield at Rio Hato, where Noriega also maintained a residence. U.S. Navy SEALs destroyed Noriega’s private jet and a Panamanian gunboat. A Panamanian ambush killed four SEALs and wounded nine. Other military command centers throughout the country were also attacked. The attack on the central headquarters of the PDF (referred to as La Comandancia) touched off several fires, one of which destroyed most of the adjoining and heavily populated El Chorrillo neighborhood in downtown Panama City. During the firefight at the Comandancia, the PDF downed two special operations helicopters and forced one OH-6 Little Bird to crash-land in the Panama Canal.
Fort Amador was secured by elements of the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and 59th Engineer Company (sappers) in a nighttime air assault which secured the fort in the early hours of December 20. Fort Amador was a key position because of its relationship to the large oil farms adjacent to the canal, the Bridge of the Americas over the canal, and the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. Key command and control elements of the PDF were stationed there. C co. 1st Battalion (Airborne) 508th PIR was assigned the task of securing La Commandancia. Furthermore, Fort Amador had a large U.S. housing district that needed to be secured to prevent the PDF from taking U.S. citizens as hostages. This position also protected the left flank of the attack on the Comadancia and the securing of the El Chorrillosneighbourhood, guarded by Dignity Battalions, Noriega supporters that the U.S. forces sometimes referred to as “Dingbats”.
A few hours after the invasion began, Guillermo Endara was sworn in at Fort Clayton. It is generally agreed that Endara would have been the victor in the presidential election which had been scheduled earlier that year.
A platoon from the 1138th Military Police Company, Missouri Army National Guard, which was on a routine two-week rotation to Panama was called upon to set up a detainee camp on Empire Range to handle the mass of civilian and military detainees. This unit made history by being the first National Guard unit called into active service since the Vietnam War.
Operation Nifty Package was an operation launched by Navy SEALs to prevent Noriega’s escape. They sank Noriega’s boat and destroyed his jet, at a cost of four killed and nine wounded. Military operations continued for several weeks, mainly against military units of the Panamanian army. Noriega remained at large for several days, but realizing he had few options in the face of a massive manhunt and a $1 million reward for his capture, he obtained refuge in the Vatican diplomatic mission in Panama City. The U.S. military’s psychological pressure on him and diplomatic pressure on the Vatican mission, however, was relentless, as was the playing of loud rock-and-roll music day and night in a densely populated area. The report of the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff maintains that the music was used principally to prevent parabolic microphones from being used to eavesdrop on negotiations, and not as a psychological weapon based around Noriega’s supposed loathing of rock music. Noriega finally surrendered to the U.S. military on January 3, 1990. He was immediately put on an MC-130E Combat Talon I aircraft and flown to the U.S.
While some U.S. Marine units continued their deployment, others that had been deployed since October 3, 1989, began returning on January 12, 1990. Along with units of the 193rd Infantry Brigade, 508th Airborne Infantry, and 59th Engineer Company (Sapper) 16th Military Police Brigade, these units continued “police” patrols throughout Panama City and areas west of the canal to restore law and order and support the newly installed government (under the moniker “Operation Promote Liberty”). Two of these units were 5th BN 21st Infantry (Light) of the 7th Light Infantry Division and the 555th Military Police, who had been in the country since December 20, 1989. Another was Kilo Co. 3BN 6MAR, initially deployed on October 1, 1989, and remaining deployed in the jungles surrounding Howard Air Force Base until April 1990. All three of these units fought the PDF and then trained the Panamanian Police Force, composed of former PDF members.
The Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America (CODEHUCA) estimated 2,500–3,000 deaths, and the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Panama (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos de Panamá, CONADEHUPA) estimated 3,500 deaths. A report by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, claimed over 4,000 deaths. The report also concluded that “neither Panamanian nor U.S. governments provided a careful accounting of non-lethal injuries” and that “relief efforts were inadequate to meet the basic needs of thousands of civilians made homeless by the invasion.” The report estimated the number of displaced civilians to be over 15,000, whereas the U.S. military provided support for only 3,000 of these.
According to official Pentagon figures, 516 Panamanians were killed during the invasion; however, an internal Army memo estimated the number at 1,000.
The UN estimated 500 deaths,
The U.S. lost 23 troops and 325 were wounded (WIA). The U.S. Southern Command, then based on Quarry Heights in Panama, estimated the number of Panamanian military dead at 205, lower than its original estimate of 314.
Civilian fatalities include an American schoolteacher working in Panama and Spanish freelance press photographer José Manuel Rodríguez.
Human Rights Watch’s 1991 report on Panama in the post-invasion aftermath stated that even with some uncertainties about the scale of civilian casualties, the figures are “still troublesome” because
[Panama’s civilian deaths] reveal that the “surgical operation” by American forces inflicted a toll in civilian lives that was at least four-and-a-half times higher than military casualties in the enemy, and twelve or thirteen times higher than the casualties suffered by U.S. troops. By themselves, these ratios suggest that the rule of proportionality and the duty to minimize harm to civilians, where doing so would not compromise a legitimate military objective, were not faithfully observed by the invading U.S. forces. For us, the controversy over the number of civilian casualties should not obscure the important debate on the manner in which those people died.
Origin of the name “Operation Just Cause”
Operation plans directed against Panama evolved from plans designed to defend the Panama Canal. They became more aggressive as the situation between the two nations deteriorated. The Prayer Book series of plans included rehearsals for a possible clash (Operation Purple Storm) and missions to secure U.S. sites (Operation Bushmaster). Eventually, these plans became Operation Blue Spoon, which was renamed by President Bush Operation Just Cause.
The Pentagon renamed the operation “Just Cause” in order to sustain the perceived legitimacy of the invasion throughout the operation. General Colin Powell said that he liked the name because “even our severest critics would have to utter ‘Just Cause’ while denouncing us.”
The post-invasion civil-military operation designed to stabilize the situation, support the U.S.-installed government, and restore basic services was originally planned as “Operation Blind Logic”, but was renamed “Operation Promote Liberty” by the Pentagon on the eve of the invasion.
The Panamanian name for the Operation is La Invasión (“The Invasion”).
The original operation, in which U.S. troops were deployed to Panama in the spring of 1989, was called “Operation Nimrod Dancer”.
Local and international reactions
The invasion of Panama provoked international outrage. Some countries charged that the U.S. had committed an act of aggression by invading Panama and was trying to conceal a new manifestation of its interventionist policy of force in Latin America. On December 29, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted 75–20, with 40 abstentions, to condemn the invasion as a flagrant violation of international law.
On December 22, the Organization of American States passed a resolution deploring the invasion and calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops, as well as a resolution condemning the violation of the diplomatic status of the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama by U.S. Special Forces who had entered the building. At the UN Security Council, after discussing the issue over several days, a draft resolution demanding the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Panama was vetoed on December 23 by three of the permanent members of the Security Council, France, United Kingdom, and the United States, who cited its right of self-defense of 35,000 Americans present on the Panama Canal.
Peru recalled its ambassador from the U.S. in protest of the invasion.
Some claim that the Panamanian people overwhelmingly supported the invasion. According to a CBS poll, 92% of Panamanian adults supported the U.S. incursion, and 76% wished that U.S. forces had invaded in October during the coup.However, others dispute this finding, asserting that the Panamanian surveys were conducted in wealthy, English-speaking neighborhoods in Panama City, among Panamanians most likely to support U.S. actions.
In 2006, one author opined that “President Bush had not defended the hemisphere against European aggression under the guise of the Monroe Doctrine, or used the threat of Communist proliferation to take action, but instead he had used the US military to remove a hostile and problematic Latin American dictator from power because it was in the best interests of the United States to do so.”
According to Robert Pastor, a former U.S. national security advisor, 74% of Americans polled approved of the action. Studies by Jeff Cohen and others of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting have attributed this support to the mainstream media’s intentional exclusion of critical viewpoints from television reporting preceding the invasion.
The Washington Post disclosed several rulings of the Office of Legal Counsel, issued shortly before the invasion, in regards to the U.S. armed forces being charged with making an arrest abroad. One ruling interpreted the Executive Order against Assassination of Foreign Leaders, which prohibits the intentional killing of foreign leaders, as suggesting that accidental killings would be acceptable foreign policy. Another ruling concluded that the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits the armed forces from making arrests without Congressional authorization, is effective only within the boundaries of the U.S., such that the military could be used as a police force abroad—for example, in Panama, to enforce a federal court warrant against Noriega.
Guillermo Endara, in hiding, was sworn in as president by a judge on the night preceding the invasion. In later years, he staged a hunger strike, calling attention to the poverty and homelessness left in the wake of both the Noriega years and the destruction caused by the U.S. invasion.
On July 19, 1990, a group of 60 companies based in Panama filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government in Federal District Court in New York City alleging that the U.S. action against Panama was “done in a tortuous, careless and negligent manner with disregard for the property of innocent Panamanian residents”. Most of the businesses had insurance, but the insurers either went bankrupt or refused to pay, claiming that acts of war are not covered.
About 20,000 people lost their homes and became refugees as a result of urban warfare. About 2,700 families that were displaced by the Chorrillo fire were each given $6,500 by the U.S. to build a new house or apartment in selected areas in or near the city. However, numerous problems were reported with the new constructions just two years after the invasion.
The government of Guillermo Endara designated the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion a “national day of reflection”. On that day hundreds of Panamanians marked the day with a “black march” through the streets of Panama City to denounce the U.S. invasion and Endara’s economic policies. Protesters echoed claims that 3,000 people were killed as a result of U.S. military action. Since Noriega’s ouster, Panama has had four presidential elections, with candidates from opposing parties succeeding each other in the Palacio de las Garzas. Panama’s press, however, is still subject to numerous restrictions. On February 10, 1990, the Endara government abolished Panama’s military and reformed the security apparatus by creating the Panamanian Public Forces. In 1994, a constitutional amendment permanently abolished the military of Panama. Concurrent with a severe recession in Latin America throughout the 1990s, Panama’s GDP recovered by 1993, but very high unemployment remained a serious problem.
Information in this section
- U.S. Senate passes resolution urging Panama to re-establish a civilian government. Panama protests alleged U.S. violations of the Torrijos–Carter Treaties.
- U.S. Senate resolution cuts military and economic aid to Panama. Panamanians adopt resolution restricting U.S. military presence.
- Noriega indicted on drug-related charges. U.S. forces begin planning contingency operations in Panama (OPLAN Blue Spoon).
- March 15: First of four deployments of U.S. forces begins providing additional security to U.S. installations.
- March 16: PDF officers attempt a coup against Noriega.
- April 5: Additional U.S. forces deployed to provide security.
- April 9: Joint Task Force Panama activated.
- May 7: Civilian elections are held in Panama; opposition alliance tally shows their candidate, Guillermo Endara, beating Noriega’s candidate, Carlos Duque, by a 3 to 1 margin. The election is declared invalid two days later by Noriega.
- May 11: President Bush orders 1,900 additional combat troops to Panama (Operation Nimrod Dancer).
- May 22: Convoys conducted to assert U.S. freedom of movement. Additional transport units travel from bases in the territorial U.S. to bases in Panama, and back, for this express purpose.
- U.S. begins conducting joint training and freedom of movement exercises (Operation Sand Flea and Operation Purple Storm). Additional transport units continue repeatedly traveling from bases in the territorial U.S. to bases in Panama, and back, for this express purpose.
- October 3: PDF, loyal to Noriega, defeat second coup attempt.
- December 15: Noriega refers to himself as leader of Panama and declares a state of war with the U.S.
- December 16: U.S. Marine lieutenant shot and killed by PDF. Navy lieutenant and wife detained and assaulted by PDF.
- December 17: NCA directs execution of Operation Just Cause.
- December 18: Army lieutenant shoots PDF sergeant. Joint Task Force South (JTFSO) advance party deploys. JCS designates D-Day/H-Hour as December 20, 1:00 a.m.
- December 19: U.S. forces alerted, marshalled, and launched.
D-Day, December 20, 1989
- U.S. invasion of Panama begins. The operation was conducted as a campaign with limited military objectives. JTFSO objectives in PLAN 90-2 were to: protect U.S. lives and key sites and facilities, capture and deliver Noriega to competent authority, neutralize PDF forces, neutralize PDF command and control, support establishment of a U.S.-recognized government in Panama, and restructure the PDF. Major operations detailed elsewhere continued through December 24.
- JCS directs execution of Operation Promote Liberty.
January 3, 1990 (D-Day + 14)
- Noriega surrenders to U.S. forces.
January 31, 1990 (D-Day + 42, official date recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)
- Operation Just Cause ends.
- Operation Promote Liberty begins.
September 1994 (D-Day + approximately 4.5 years)
- Operation Promote Liberty ends.