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News > Panama

Panama: A Grieving People Recalls 30 Years of the US Invasion

  • A U.S. Army M113 armored personnel carrier guards a street near the Panamanian Defense Force headquarters, Panama, Dec. 21, 1989.

    A U.S. Army M113 armored personnel carrier guards a street near the Panamanian Defense Force headquarters, Panama, Dec. 21, 1989. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons - PH1(SW) J. Elliott

Published 20 December 2019

Declassified documents indicate that 202 civilians and 314 militaries were killed during "Operation Just Cause." Historians, however, argue that invaders killed up to 4,000 civilians.

For the first time over the last 30 years, Panamanian authorities agreed to declare "National Day of Mourning" on December 20, which is the date on which the United States invaded Panama in 1989.​​​​


A Brief History of the US Interference in the Caribbean Basin

"The government acknowledges declaring December 20 as a day of national mourning to honor Panamanians and all the innocents who lost their lives and defended our territory's integrity," President Laurentino Cortizo tweeted on Wednesday.

On Dec. 20, 1989, President George H.W. Bush ordered "Operation Just Cause" and deployed some 26,000 soldiers to overthrow General Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Until then, he had been one of the most faithful collaborators of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Noriega fueled the Bush administration's hostility when he requested the closure of "The School of the Americas," where the U.S. had trained thousands of Latin American military since 1946. Upon losing Washington's support, however, the U.S. Justice accused him of drug trafficking.

Official declassified documents, which were published by Panama Files for the first time this week, indicate that 202 civilians and 314 militaries were killed during Operation Just Cause.

In an unofficially recognized manner, historians, activists, and families argue that the U.S. invasion killed up to 4,000 civilians.

“El Chorillo neighborhood, where the Panamanian Defense Forces central headquarters were located, was razed during the battle,” local outlet El Siglo recalls.

"The U.S. invaded Panama 30 years ago. The massacre cost the lives of several hundred Panamanians and left irreparable wounds in that sister nation. We remember this tragedy as a sad episode in history, which will never be repeated. Long live Panama!"

Mirta Guevara, who was a Public Prosecutor at the time, remembers that nobody imagined what the U.S. was planning to do. She was studying court records on the night of December 19 when her husband came in and told her, "Close those files. They are going to invade us."

"I was shocked because, although one sees such things at the movies, I had never imagined it. I think that no Panamanian imagined that they were going to invade us," Guevara recalls and now says that such an action had no justification. "Many people died."

Of what happened in Panama not only oral counts remained. A year after the invasion, a documentary showed a woman who asked the U.S.-imposed government to recognize whether what happened was "war, invasion or liberation." They replied to her that it was a "government of democracy and justice."

“Democracy for whom? Justice for whom? For those who are in the mass graves or for those who are in the government? For those of us who go hungry or for those who have everything?” the woman said without fear of the repression that was lived in the country.

Panama: National Mourning Day, 30 years after the U.S. invasion.

In another documentary called “Unjust Cause,” which was made by the Panamanian filmmaker Rafael Vergara, scenes of brutal aggressions are reported, one of which happened when the U.S. troops bombarded a civil building because their inhabitants did not want to leave.

To resist the invasion, the Panamanians organized themselves in the "Battalions of Dignity", which were groups of guerrilla fighters who were persecuted by the invasion-born government, which was led by Guillermo Endara, to whom a judge gave the presidency secretly the night before the invasion.

"Those who seized power mounted on the invading tanks remain silent," a witness told Prensa Latina.

“After 30 years, the curtains, which hid the worst massacre experienced by Panama and the largest U.S. military deployment after Vietnam, begin to fall."

In his chronicle “The Panama Invasion: A Heroine of the Little Hiroshima,” Colombian journalist Hernando Calvo described what happened in El Chorrillo neighborhood through the testimony of Ana.

She recalled a Dantesque scenario in which invading troops prevented helping injured family members, tanks hit dead or alive people lying on the street, and flamethrowers burned dead bodies at the beach.

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