Operation Just Cause: The 1989 US Invasion of Panama

Operation Just Cause, American invasion of Panama
American troops stand armed at a humvee during the invasion of Panama.

Steven D. Starr / Getty Images

Operation Just Cause was the name given to the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989 for the purposes of removing General Manuel Noriega from power and extraditing him to the U.S. to face charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. The U.S. had trained Noriega and used him as a CIA informant for decades, and he was an important ally in the covert "Contra" war against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas during the 1980s. However, in the late 1980s, with the War on Drugs ramping up, the U.S. could no longer turn a blind eye to Noriega's ties to Colombian drug cartels.

Fast Facts: Operation Just Cause

  • Short Description: Operation Just Cause was the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 in order to remove General Manuel Noriega from power
  • Key Players/Participants: Manuel Noriega, President George H.W. Bush
  • Event Start Date: December 20, 1989
  • Event End Date: January 3, 1990
  • Location: Panama City, Panama

Panama in the 1980s

When General Manuel Noriega came to power in 1981, it was essentially a continuation of the military dictatorship that had been established by Omar Torrijos since 1968. Noriega had risen through the ranks of the military during Torrijos' reign, and ultimately became head of Panamanian intelligence. When Torrijos died mysteriously in a plane crash in 1981, there was no established protocol regarding a transfer of power. Following a struggle for power between military leaders, Noriega became the head of the National Guard and de-facto ruler of Panama.

Noriega was never associated with a particular political ideology; he was motivated primarily by nationalism and the desire to maintain power. In order to present his regime as non-authoritarian, Noriega held democratic elections, but they were overseen by the military, and the 1984 election was later found to be rigged, with Noriega directly ordering the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) to overturn the outcome so he could install a puppet president. Repression and human rights abuses increased after Noriega took office. One of the defining events of his reign was the brutal assassination of Dr. Hugo Spadafora, a vocal critic of the regime, in 1985. After Noriega was implicated in Spadafora's death, public outcry against the regime increased and the Reagan administration began to see the dictator as more of a liability than an ally.

Manuel Noriega with anti-imperialist message, 1988
Manuel Noriega with supporters in front of anti-imperialist banner. William Gentile / Getty Images 

US Interests in Panama

Panama Canal

U.S. interests in Panama date back to the early 20th century and the building of the Panama Canal, which the U.S. funded. The 1903 treaty between the two countries granted the U.S. certain rights, including the perpetual use, control, and occupation of the land (both above and under water) within the Canal Zone. The treaty was signed in the context of U.S. expansionism (just five years earlier, the Spanish-American War had resulted in the U.S. acquiring Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam) and imperialist influence over Latin America.

By the later 20th century, friction had arisen regarding U.S. control over the canal, and in the later 1970s, there was a renegotiation of terms between Torrijos and President Jimmy Carter. Panama was set to take control of the Canal by the year 2000. In return, Torrijos agreed to restore civilian rule and hold a presidential election in 1984. Nonetheless, he died in a plane crash in 1981 and Noriega and other members of Torrijos' inner circle made a secret deal to take over power.

Panama Canal
Panama Canal. Jason Bleibtreu / Getty Images

Noriega's Relationship With the CIA

Noriega was recruited as an informant by the CIA while he was a student in Lima, Peru, an arrangement that continued for many years. Although he had a reputation as a thug and violent sexual predator, he was deemed useful to U.S. intelligence and attended military intelligence training both in the U.S. and at the infamous U.S.-funded School of the Americas, known as the "school for dictators," in Panama. By 1981, Noriega was receiving $200,000 per year for his intelligence services for the CIA.

As it had done with Torrijos, the U.S. tolerated Noriega's authoritarian rule because dictators guaranteed the stability of Panama, even if it meant widespread repression and human rights abuses. Furthermore, Panama was a strategic ally in the U.S. fight against the spread of communism in Latin America during the Cold War. The U.S. looked the other way with regards to Noriega's criminal activity, which included drug smuggling, gun running, and money laundering, because he provided assistance with the covert Contra campaign against the socialist Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua.

US Turns Against Noriega

There were a number of factors that contributed to the U.S. ultimately turning against Noriega. First, the Herrera crisis: Noriega was scheduled to step down in 1987 as head of the PDF and install Roberto Diáz Herrera, in an agreement he made with other military officers in 1981, following Torrijos' death. Nonetheless, in June 1987, Noriega refused to step down and forced Herrera out of his inner circle, stating he would remain as head of the PDF for the next five years. Herrera called a press conference, accusing Noriega of involvement in Torrijos' death and in the murder of Hugo Spadafora. This led to major street protests against the regime, and Noriega sent out a special riot unit called the "Dobermans" to subdue the demonstrators, and imposed a state of emergency.

The U.S. began to scrutinize Noriega's drug-trafficking activities more publicly as a result of these events. While the U.S. had known about these activities for years—and Noriega had even established close relationships with officials in the DEA—the Reagan administration had turned a blind eye because Noriega was an ally in its Cold War agenda. Nonetheless, in the wake of Noriega's repressive measures, critics publicized his drug-trafficking activities and the U.S. could no longer ignore them.

In June 1987, the Senate proposed a resolution advocating for the restoration of democracy in Panama and prohibiting importation of Panamanian sugar until freedom of the press was restored. Noriega refused U.S. demands, both those coming from the Senate and the back-channel communication from the Reagan administration. In late 1987, a defense department official was sent to Panama to insist that Noriega step down.

By February 1988, two federal grand juries indicted Noriega on drug smuggling and money laundering charges, including accepting a $4.6 million bribe from the Colombian Medellín cartel and allowing smugglers to use Panama as a way station for U.S.-bound cocaine. By March, the U.S. had suspended all military and economic aid to Panama.

Patriotic, anti-American murals in Panama, 1988
Large murals in a Panama neighborhood sport anti-American messages and promote Panamanian nationalism. Steven D. Starr / Getty Images

Also in March, there was an attempted coup against Noriega; it failed, demonstrating to the U.S. that Noriega still had support from the majority of the PDF. The U.S. was beginning to realize that economic pressure alone would not succeed in removing Noriega from power, and by April, defense officials were floating the idea of military intervention. Nonetheless, the Reagan administration continued to use diplomatic means to convince Noriega to step down. Then Vice President George H.W. Bush openly opposed negotiations with Noriega, and by the time he was inaugurated in January 1989, it was clear that he felt strongly that the Panamanian dictator should be removed.

The last straw was the Panamanian presidential election of 1989. It was common knowledge that Noriega had rigged the 1984 election, so Bush sent U.S. delegates, including former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, to monitor the May election. When it became clear that Noriega's chosen candidate for president would not win the election, he intervened and stopped the vote count. There were widespread protests with involvement by U.S. embassy staff, but Noriega repressed them violently. By May, President Bush had openly declared that it would not recognize the Noriega regime.

With pressure mounting on Noriega, not only from the U.S. but from countries across the region and Europe, some members of his inner circle began turning on him. One launched a coup attempt in October, and although he asked for support from U.S. forces stationed in the Canal Zone, no backup arrived, and he was tortured and killed by Noriega's men. There was a marked increase in hostility between Panamanian and U.S. forces that fall, with both holding military exercises.

Then, on December 15, the Panamanian National Assembly declared that it was at war with the U.S. and the next day PDF opened fire on a car at a checkpoint carrying four U.S. military officers.

Operation Just Cause

On December 17, Bush met with his advisors, including General Colin Powell, who suggested that Noriega be removed by force. The meeting established five main objectives for an invasion: secure the lives of 30,000 Americans living in Panama, protect the integrity of the canal, help the opposition establish democracy, neutralize the PDF, and bring Noriega to justice.

The intervention, ultimately named "Operation Just Cause," was scheduled to begin in the early morning hours of December 20, 1989, and would be the largest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War. The total number of U.S. troops, 27,000, was more than double that of the PDF, and they had the advantage of additional air support—in the first 13 hours, the Air Force dropped 422 bombs on Panama. The U.S. gained control in just five days. On December 24, the true winner of the May 1989 elections, Guillermo Endara, was officially named president and the PDF was dissolved.

Operation Just Cause
US President George Bush has deployed soldiers in Panama in order to overthrow Manuel Antonio Noriega. Jean-Louis Atlan / Getty Images

In the meantime, Noriega had been on the move, trying to evade capture. When Endara was named president, he fled to the Vatican Embassy and requested asylum. U.S. forces used "psyop" tactics like blasting the embassy with loud rap and heavy metal music, and ultimately Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990. The number of civilian casualties of the U.S. invasion is still contested, but potentially numbered in the thousands. In addition, around 15,000 Panamanians lost their homes and businesses.

Destruction of Operation Just Cause
Burned cars and destroyed buildings are all that remain in a section of Panama after the U.S. invasion. Steven D. Starr / Getty Images 

International Backlash

There was immediate backlash to the invasion, with the Organization of American States passing a resolution on December 21 asking U.S. troops to leave Panama. This was followed by a condemnation by the UN General Assembly, which found the invasion to be a violation of international law.

Impact and Legacy

Noriega Faces Justice

After being captured, Noriega was flown to Miami to face numerous charges. His trial began in September 1991, and in April 1992, Noriega was found guilty on eight of ten charges of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. He was initially sentenced to 40 years in prison, but the sentence was later reduced to 30 years. Noriega received special treatment in prison, serving his time in the "presidential suite" in Miami. He became eligible for parole after 17 years in prison due to good behavior, but was then extradited to France in 2010 to face money laundering charges. Although he was convicted and sentenced to seven years, he was extradited by France to Panama in 2011 to face three 20-year sentences for the murder of political rivals, including Spadafora; he had been convicted in absentia.

In 2016, Noriega was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent surgery the following year. He suffered severe hemorrhaging, was placed in a medically-induced coma, and died on May 29, 2017.

Panama After Operation Just Cause

Just a month after Noriega was removed, Endara dissolved the PDF and replaced it with a demilitarized National Police. In 1994, Panama's legislature barred the creation of a standing army. Nonetheless, Panama lost a degree of national sovereignty with the dissolution of the PDF, which had been responsible for all intelligence activities, for ensuring the U.S. adhered to its treaty with Panama regarding the canal, and for protecting the country against drug smugglers. Before the invasion, Panama didn't have a major problem with drug trafficking or gang activity, but that has changed in recent decades.

President Bush with Panamanian President Endara
Washington: President Bush meets with Panamanian President Guillermo Endara in the Oval Office. Bettmann / Getty Images

The U.S. has continued to intervene in affairs related to the canal, and has pushed Panama to remilitarize its police force, which violates the country's constitution. Julio Yao wrote in 2012, "A ceasefire policy no longer exists along Panama’s southern border with Colombia’s FARC guerrillas. In the past, this respect ensured decades of peaceful coexistence between Panamanians and Colombians. However, encouraged by the United States, on September 7, 2010, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli declared war on the FARC."

While the transfer of power of the canal on December 31, 1999, has led to much-needed income for Panama via tolls paid by ships passing through, there is increasing income inequality and widespread poverty rivaling that of other countries in the region, like Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

Sources

  • Hensel, Howard and Nelson Michaud, editors. Global Media Perspectives on the Crisis in Panama. Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2011.
  • Kempe, Frederick. Divorcing the Dictator: America's Bungled Affair with Noriega. London: I.B. Tauris & Co, Ltd., 1990.