Operation Just Cause

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(Redirected from 1989 invasion of Panama)

Operation Just Cause was the U.S. military invasion of Panama that deposed Manuel Noriega in December 1989, during the administration of U.S. President George H. W. Bush.

Missing image
U.S. Army Rangers prepare to take La Comandancia in the El Chorrillo neighborhood of Panama City, December 1989.

General information

The miltary incursion into Panama began on December 20, 1989, at 0100 local time. The operation involved 24,000 U.S. troops and over 300 aircraft — including AH-64 helicopter gunships, AC-130 aircraft and F-117A stealth aircraft which was used for the first time in combat. These were deployed against the 16,000 members of the Panama Defense Force. This action was preceded by over a year of diplomatic tension between the United States and Panama (including an attemped coup against Noriega) and several months of U.S. troop buildup in military bases within the former Panama Canal Zone.

The operation began with an assault of strategic installations such as the civilian Paitilla airport in Panama City and military command centers throughout the country. 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 one AH-64 helicopter [1] (http://www.specialoperations.com/Operations/Just_Cause/Operation_Profile.htm).

The Panamanian Defense Force was overwhelmed by the superior firepower of the U.S. forces.

A few hours after the invasion began, Guillermo Endara was sworn in at a United States military base in the former Canal Zone. It is generally agreed that Endara would have been the victor in the presidential election which had been scheduled earlier that year (Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1989).
Missing image
U.S. Army Rangers secure La Comandancia in Panama during Operation Just Cause, December 1989.

Military operations continued for several days, mainly against paramilitary units of Noriega loyalists called "Batallones de la Dignidad". With the collapse of the Panamanian Defense Force, looting and other forms of vandalism quickly ensued in most urban areas, but despite the widespread lawlessness, the main focus of the American forces continued to be Noriega's capture and extradition. Noriega remained at large for several days, but realizing he had few options in the face of a massive manhunt, with a one million dollar reward for his capture, he obtained refuge in the Vatican diplomatic mission in Panama City. The American military's psychological pressure on him and diplomatic pressure on the Vatican mission, however, was relentless, including the playing of loud rock-and-roll music day and night in a densely populated area. As a result, Noriega finally surrendered to the U.S. military on January 3, 1990. He was immediately put on a military transport plane and extradited to the United States.

By mid-January, American combat forces had begun to withdraw, though U.S. forces remained, ostensibly to support the reconstruction of the newly installed Panamanian government (under the moniker Operation Promote Liberty).


The Americans lost 23 soldiers killed in action (KIA) and 324 wounded (WIA). The U.S. Southern Command, at that time based in Panama, estimated at fifty the number of Panamanian military casualties, lower than its original estimate of 314. There has been considerable controversy over the number of Panamanian civilian casualties resulting from the invasion. At the low end, the Southern Command estimated that number at two hundred. A U.S.-based independent Commission of Inquiry, headed by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, estimated at more than three thousand the number of Panamanian civilian casualties.

Physicians for Human Rights [2] (http://www.phrusa.org/about/index.html) in a report issued one year after the invasion[3] (http://www.phrusa.org/research/health_effects/humojc.html), estimated that "at least 300 Panamanian civilians died due to the invasion". 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.

Origin of the name

The name "Just Cause" has been used primarily by the United States military for planning and historical purposes and by other U.S. entities such as the State Department. Panamanians usually refer to it simply as "The Invasion" (La Invasión). It has been reported that the invasion was derisively referred to as "Operation Just Because" by skeptics inside the Pentagon [4] (http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml%3Fi=20041108&s=acockburn).

In recent years, the naming of U.S. military operations has been the source of some controversy, both internationally and domestically (see Operation Enduring Freedom). At the time operations to depose Noriega were being planned, U.S. military operations were given meaningless names. Just Cause was planned under the name Blue Spoon, and the invasion itself incorporated elements of the Operation Nifty Package and Operation Acid Gambit plans. The name Blue Spoon was later changed to Just Cause for aesthetic and public relations reasons.

Reasons for the invasion

On the morning of December 20, a few hours after the start of the operation, President George H. W. Bush made a short statement listing 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 United States and Panama and that he also threatened the lives of the approximately 35,000 Americans living there. There had been numerous clashes between U.S. and Panamanian forces; one American had been killed a few days earlier and several incidents of harassment of Americans had taken place.
  • Combating drug trafficking. Panama had become a center for drug money laundering and a transit point for drug trafficking to the United States and Europe. Noriega had been singled out for direct involvement in these drug trafficking operations.
  • 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 United States had the right under the treaties to intervene militarily to protect the canal.

In regard to one of the reasons set forth by the United States to justify the invasion, namely the declaration of a state of war between the United States and Panama, Noriega insists that his statement referred to a state of war directed by the U.S. against Panama, in the form of harsh economic sanctions and constant, provocative military manuevers that were prohibited by the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. Moreover, relations between American and Panamanian civilians had traditionally been cordial, and this state of affairs had not changed significantly prior to the invasion, a fact which had been widely reported in the international press.

In the December 16 incident that led to the killing of an American soldier, four U.S. soldiers were stopped at a roadblock outside PDF headquarters in the El Chorrillo neighborhood of Panama City. The United States Department of Defense claimed that the servicemen were unarmed and in a private vehicle and that they attempted to flee the scene only after their vehicle was surrounded by a crowd of civilians and PDF troops. The PDF claimed the Americans were armed and on a reconnaissance mission (Facts on File reference below). It was also reported by the Los Angeles Times (see reference below) that "according to American military and civilian sources" the soldier killed was a member of the "Hard Chargers", a group whose goal was to incite agitation in order to gain a response that would justify military retaliation (see also [5] (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/thepanamadeceptionnrhinson_a0a7bd.htm)).

International reaction

On December 22 the Organization of American States passed a resolution deploring the invasion and calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops. A similar resolution was passed on December 29 by the United Nations General Assembly. Earlier, a Security Council resolution condemning the invasion had been vetoed by the United States, Great Britain and France (See Facts on File, December 31, 1989 reference).

After the invasion, governments throughout Latin America — including the government of Chile under Augusto Pinochet, which was generally supportive of United States policies — issued statements condemning the invasion and calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. One of the reasons Bush gave for the invasion, the reestablishment of democracy in Panama, was widely viewed with suspicion, since the United States was perceived throughout Latin America as one of the primary destabilizers of other democratically elected governments in the region. In the recent past, the United States had shown little concern for well-publicized human rights violations in other Latin American countries with right-wing governments such as Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and El Salvador and was also believed to have supported insurgencies in several countries. Moreover Noriega was considered to be a former puppet of the United States who had cooperated with American efforts to destabilize the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. It is generally believed that during that time the United States did little to curtail his involvement in drug trafficking.

The various reasons supplied by the United States to justify the invasion were widely regarded in Latin America as a thin veneer to disguise other intentions, such as the reestablishment of military bases in Panama or even the overturning the Torrijos-Carter treaties themselves. These fears had some credibility, justified by the opposition within the United States Congress to handing the canal over to Panama by the year 2000 as required by the treaties.

It was also believed that the United States wanted to retain its influence in the administration of the canal. According to the timetable stipulated by the Torrijos-Carter treaties, the United States was scheduled to hand over the administration of the canal to Panama on January 1, 1990. The Panamanian government under Noriega had said it intended to appoint Tomás Altamirano Duque, widely known as a Noriega loyalist to the top administrator post. This choice was unacceptable to the United States, which had expressed fears he would excessively politicize canal operations.


The Guillermo Endara government 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 this capital to denounce the U.S. invasion and Endara's economic policies. Protestors echoed claims that 3,000 people were killed as a result of U.S. military action.

One notorious after-effect of the invasion was nearly two weeks of widespread looting and lawlessness, a contingency which the United States military apparently had not anticipated. This looting inflicted catastrophic losses on many Panamanian businesses, some of which took several years to recover. On July 19, 1990 a group of 60 companies based in Panama filed a lawsuit against the United States Government in Federal District Court in New York City alleging that the U. S. action against Panama was "done in a tortious, 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 acts of war are not covered (New York Times, July 21, 1990).

About 2,700 families that were displaced by the Chorrillo fire were each given $6,500 by the United States 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 (Christian Science Monitor, December 20, 1991).

After Noriega's ouster, Panama has had three presidential elections, with candidates from opposing parties succeeding each other in the Palacio de las Garzas. Panama also has an unforgiving, if not rowdy press. On 10 February 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. While Panama's GDP recovered by 1993, very high unemployment remained a serious problem. This could be attributed to numerous other causes unrelated to its political environment post-Noriega, including the debt crisis of Mexico in 19941995, severe recession in Latin America throughout the 1990s, and the Asian financial crisis.

American units involved in the operation

(1) Kilo Company, 3BN 6MAR (2) Light Armored Infantry (LAI) Company

Related operations

External links


  • Facts On File World News Digest, December 22, 1989, U.S. Forces Invade Panama, Seize Wide Control; Noriega Eludes Capture. FACTS.com [6] (http://www.2facts.com/).
  • Facts On File World News Digest, December 31, 1989, Noriega Seeks Refuge with Papal Envoy in Panama; Fighting Quelled; Other Developments. FACTS.com. [7] (http://www.2facts.com).
  • Christian Science Monitor, December 20, 1991, El Chorrillo Two years after the US invaded Panama, those displaced by the war have new homes.
  • Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1989, Combat in Panama, Operation Just Cause.
  • Los Angeles Times, December 22, 1990, Some Blame Rogue Band of Marines for Picking Fight, Spurring Panama Invasion, Kenneth Freed.
  • New York Times, December 21, 1989, A Transcript of President Bush's Address on the Decision to Use Force.
  • New York Times, December 21, 1989,For a Panamanian, Hope and Tragedy, Roberto Eisenmann. (Opinion piece)
  • New York Times, December 21, 1989, U.S.Denounced by Nations Touchy About Intervention, James Brooke.
  • New York Times, July 21, 1990, Panama Companies Sue U.S. for Damages.
  • Hagemeister, Stacy & Solon, Jenny. Operation Just Cause: Lessons Learned – Volume I, II & III (http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1990/90-9/9091toc.htm) (Bulletin No. 90-9). Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Center for Army Lessons Learned – US Army Combined Arms Command. October, 1990.
  • Stephen J. Ducat. 2004. The Wimp Factor. Boston:Beacon Press. ISBN 0807043443. p. 101-102.es:Invasión de Panamá

id:Invasi Amerika Serikat ke Panama 1989 nl:Operatie Just Cause


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