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Latin America

Panama launches truth commission to investigate U.S. invasion

The exact death toll from the invasion remains unknown 26 years later. The commission will seek declassification of U.S. documents.
Univision News Logo
21 Jul 2016 – 5:21 PM EDT

The government in Panama has created a commission to investigate the U.S. invasion in 1989 that overthrew military strongman General Manuel Noriega.

The commission is tasked with finding out exactly how many people died during the operation, and to identify them. It will also assess whether relatives of the victims deserve compensation.

"Panama is seeking to heal its wounds," said the country's vice president and foreign minister, Isabel de Saint Malo. "There can be no reconciliation if the truth is not known," she added, noting that there has never been an official accounting on the Dec. 20 1989 invasion.


The U.S. ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, told Univision that Washington would cooperate fully with the Panamanian government to assist the commission.

"The United States is willing to work with the government of Panama as it seeks to discover its own history," he said. "We believe that transparency and historical examination is important."

Estimates have varied widely over the death toll, from as few as 200 to as many as several thousand. The most thorough investigation by the U.S. group Physicians for Human Rights said there were at least 302 civilians killed and 3,000 injured , though some may have been members of Noriega's nonuniformed paramilitary Dignity Battalion.

Twenty-three U.S. military personnel died, several from friendly fire, as well as 150 Panamanian combatents.

The invasion, codenamed 'Operation Just Cause,' was for years celebrated by Panamanian officials as the end of military dictatorship, rather than a bloody tragedy. But last year President Juan Carlos Varela signed an executive order declaring Dec. 20 as a National Day of Reflection and ordered that the national flag be flown at half-staff.

"Such commissions can be a productive way to heal old wounds and allow societies to go forward certain of the truth and perhaps even justice about the past," said Gabriel Marcella former Director of the Americas Studies at the U.S. Army War College, and former Advisor to the Commander in Chief of the United States Southern Command in Panama.

In El Salvador and Guatemala truth commissions helped reconcile opposing political forces after civil wars in the 1980s. Other countries, such as Spain, Italy and Argetina have chosen not to reopen old wounds.

Efforts to secure compensation for the victims in Panama went nowhere, largely because of the close ties between Washington and Panama's post-invasion government. Soon after the invasion the U.S. Congress passed a $500-million aid package for Panama, but much of it was geared to helping it restructure its foreign debt.

Money was set aside to re-house 2,500 Panamanians who lost their homes after fire swept through the downtown neighborhood of Chorillo, which bordered on Noriega's military headquarters.

The commission's five members are mostly well known civic figures, including a respected human rights activist, a former minister, a lawyer and an academic. "We invite anyone with information, foreign or Panamanian, to meet with us," said Juan Planells, head of the commission.


"Anything that brings closure to the families of the victims is a good thing and this probably should have been done a long time ago, but I am skeptical that much new information will be revealed beyond what we already know," said Orlando J. Pérez, a Panama expert at Millersville University in Pennsylvannia. A previous Truth Commission in Panama only looked at victims of military rule prior to the invasion, he added.

"I believe the evidence is overwhelming that the number of deaths was closer to the 500 figure than the thousands some have claimed. As for reparations, I doubt very much the U.S. is going to provide it and so it will have to come from the Panamanian government."

The invasion involved 27,000 U.S. troops and over 300 aircraft and quickly succeeded in capturing all strategic objectives in Panama. Noriega was forced into hiding while a civilian government was sworn in. Some have questioned whether excessive force used against Noriega's weak military contributed to the death toll. Question marks were also raised over the actions of some U.S. soldiers who opened fire on innocent victims in the confusion of the massive pre-dawn attack led by the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

"We find that the conduct of American forces during the fighting failed to observe important obligations enshrined in the Geneva Conventions with regards to the treatment of civilians," concluded a May 1990 report by the human rights group Americas Watch. "In particular, the U.S. forces violated their ever-present duty to minimize harm to the civilian population in some of the most important battle sites," it stated.

The U.S. government defended the action of its troops in Panama, saying the military operation was "limited to what was necessary and proportionate, and were specifically designed to minimize (to the extent possible) injury and loss to civilians and civilian property."

Under the U.S. Foreign Claims Act, compensation is prohibited for damages that "result directly or indirectly from an act of the armed forces of the United States in combat."

After taking refuge in the Vatican embassy, Noriega eventually surrendered to U.S. forces on Jan 3 1990 and was put on trial in Miami for drug-related crimes.

Now 83, he remains in prison in Panama for ordering the disappearance of dissidents during his 1983-1989 rule.

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