This article by John Lindsay Poland was originally published on teleSUR, December 19 2014 (1)
The US invasion of Panama, 25 years ago today, represented an important turn toward the use of direct military power as part of the escalated drug war.
They came into the city after midnight, massively, from the air, and without warning. The 26,000 troops participating in the U.S. invasion of Panama on December 20, 1989 focused their operations on Panama Defense Forces facilities, especially Panamanian General Manuel Noriega’s headquarters, located in the poor Panama City neighborhood of El Chorrillo, whose residents paid dearly.
The invasion 25 years ago today represented an important turn by the United States toward the use of direct military power as part of the escalated drug war. It was the largest deployment of U.S. troops at that time since the Vietnam War. President George H.W. Bush explained the invasion principally on the basis of emerging drug war, but also to protect canal operations and U.S. lives and to restore democratic rule in Panama.
The canal protection rationale was based on a provision of one of the canal treaties permitting the United States to intervene if canal operations were in danger, but the invasion itself caused a suspension of canal traffic. An invasion was also hardly necessary to protect U.S. lives, since there were already thousands of troops in Panama. The president installed by the invasion, whose election Noriega had annulled, was a fig leaf, while U.S. military and civilian ‘advisors’ exercised substantive power.
The primary justification was to hunt down Manuel Noriega, who had been indicted in Miami for drug trafficking and who eventually served 17 years in federal prison. But the arguably more important goal was institutional: not just regime change, but the dismantling of the Panama Defense Forces and their replacement by a U.S.-trained police force.
The previous month, Germans had pulled down the Berlin Wall, symbolically eliminating the Cold War rationale for most Pentagon missions around the world, including in Latin America. The Panama invasion was effectively a trial run for the much larger invasion of Iraq that would occur a year later. And it provided a pretext for using the F-117 “stealth” bomber for the first time, as well as Apache helicopter gunships, AC-130 aircraft, and 2,000-pound bombs.
The human toll of the invasion was terrible but never fully calculated. El Chorrillo’s wooden tenements, which had been built initially for canal construction workers and housed 30,000 mostly poor Panamanians, burst into flames when gunships fired on them. Tanks rolled over bodies. By Christmas Day, 15,000 Panamanians were homeless, displaced into makeshift shelters. On top of the military’s destruction, a spasm of looting in shopping centers while U.S. troops watched passively, produced further economic losses.
Church sources estimated that between one and two thousand people were killed; others calculated more and less, but because bodies were buried hurriedly and the U.S. made no effort to account for them, we will probably never know how many died. In any case, it was by far the most violent event in the country’s history. And no number of deaths was legitimate in an illegal invasion that was condemned by the United Nations and OAS.
Surviving victims of the invasion are calling on Panama’s leaders to recognize December 20 as a day of mourning and remembrance, and to support a case before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission demanding indemnification by the United States.
The 1989 invasion also gave U.S. leaders over-confidence, leading them to believe they could keep bases and troops in Panama after 1999. It didn’t work out that way.
U.S. military bases in Panama had served as a platform for military adventures throughout the 20th Century, from Marine landings and occupations of Nicaragua and Honduras to air surveillance of Salvadoran rural communities to facilitate bomb attacks there in the 1980s. The U.S. Army School of the Americas was located in Fort Gulick on the banks of the canal, a base not only for training officers in anti-democratic and abusive methods, but for sharing intelligence as part of Operation Condor’s assassination program in the Southern Cone.
Panamanians had long sought control of the canal and eviction of foreign military troops, and in 1977 populist dictator Omar Torrijos and President Jimmy Carter signed canal treaties that required closure of U.S. bases and transfer of the canal to Panama by the end of 1999. Many observers believed the invasion was a prelude to overturning the treaties’ promise and keeping U.S. bases in Panama to fight the drug war. In 1995, these concerns were born out, when Washington and Panama announced negotiations to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Panama after 1999 for a “Multinational Counterdrug Center.”
But when U.S. negotiators successfully incorporated all they wanted into a draft agreement, they went beyond what Panamanians could politically defend. The agreement included U.S. exclusive use of valuable lands, hundreds of housing units, and recreational facilities, continued maneuvers on bombing ranges, criminal immunity for U.S. troops, exemptions from taxes and tolls, and no recourse to the United Nations or other international bodies to mediate disputes. The agreement collapsed in 1998, and U.S. bases closed, troops departed, and the canal transferred to Panama at the end of 1999.
The drug war is still the rhetorical rationale for U.S. military involvement in the region, especially in Mexico, Panama, and other Central American countries. The United States and U.S.-supported Colombian officers train Panamanian police and naval personnel at the successor to the School of Americas in Georgia and in Panama. The United States has built several new small naval bases – nominally run by Panamanian forces – on the isthmian coasts to interdict traffickers. A Pentagon contractor also continues to test the effects of the tropical climate on military equipment in Panama.
But the drug war’s failure to stem drug abuse in the United States – now embodied in prescription drug and opiate addiction – and the war’s displacement of trafficking organizations, retail drug markets, and violence to countries and areas not previously affected is leading to many local reforms and to demands to repeal the global prohibitionist framework. The United Nations special session on drug policy in June 2016 will take up these demands and the search for effective policy. It would be a fitting legacy of the brutal U.S. invasion of Panama if these processes result in the widespread rejection of military responses to illicit drug markets.
John Lindsay-Poland serves as an advisor to the FOR Peace Presence team.