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The forgotten U.S. Marine whose death triggered an invasion

On Dec 16 1989, Lt Robert Paz was killed in Panama. But little is known about the Colombian-born Marine whose death sparked the largest U.S. military intervention in Latin American history.
(Lea este articulo en español)
16 Dic 2019 – 12:36 PM EST

In photos: Lt Robert Paz and his family taken at the time of his death in 1989

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For 30 years, the name of U.S. Marine 1st Lt Robert Paz has been just a tragic foot-note in the history of the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.

His death on December 16 1989, was one of the triggers cited by President George H Bush for his decision to order the invasion three days later to remove Panamanian dictator, Gen Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Despite numerous references to his death in media reports at the time, as well as history books, little is known of the young, 25-year-old, Colombian-born man who had only recently joined the Marine Corps and had arrived in Panama a few months earlier.

Neither the Pentagon or the U.S. Marine Corps was able to provide Univision a photograph of the fallen Hispanic warrior, who was posthumously honored with the Purple Heart for his brief service to his country.

Univision recently undertook a search of public records to try and find out more about Paz and the circumstances of his death.

“We lost a U.S. Marine who was a good man, and for no damn good reason,” said Lt Col Rich Haddad a retired U.S. Marine who was with Paz the night he was killed. “I think about Rob. What happened was tragic and I had a part in it. You don’t ever get rid of that,” he added.

Michigan student

Born in Cali, Colombia, Paz was a fluent Spanish speaker who grew up on a farm and joined the Marines while a student at Michigan State University where he studied animal science. "I remember he came to graduation in full military dress," recalled his professor at Michigan State, David Hawkins, in an interview for the website Together We Served, which seeks to reconnect veterans.

Paz was an above-average student who asked a lot of questions in class, according to the details on the website, compiled by a fellow Marine, Hank Salmans, who served in Panama, but never knew Paz.

In his application at Michigan State, Paz wrote that his American mother, Mary Alice Fisher, was a teacher from Dallas and his Colombian father, Jaime Paz, was a travel agent. It was in Colombia, Paz said, that he developed a desire to pursue a career in animal science due to time he spent there on a coffee and banana farm, where his family also raised cattle.

“Circumstances have given Robert a certain notoriety which would have made him very uncomfortable,” his mother, Mary Paz, wrote to the president of MSU after a memorial ceremony Jan 11 in his honor, a copy of which was provided to Univision by the university. “He was happiest when feeding the calves at MSU farms or slushing through the mud with the Marines,” she added.

The university president ordered flags to be flown at half mast on the day of the ceremony.

Panama

Why he joined the military is not clear, though Haddad recalled that his uncle, Al Fisher, was a former Marine who retired to the Chicago area.
Paz graduated from MSU in 1986 and was posted to Panama as a Marine intelligence officer in September 1989, where tensions between Noriega and the Bush administration were reaching boiling point.

At that time, the United States still had a major military presence in Panama with more than 12,000 troops stationed in bases along the banks of the Panama Canal. Paz was assigned to the U.S. Southern Command counter narcotics operations at Howard Air Force base, near Panama City, according to Haddad who worked in the same office coordinating logistics for DEA drug operations with U.S. partners in Latin America.
“We got to know each other well. We worked out together. We were drinking buddies, we’d talk single guy stuff, that sort of thing,” said Haddad, who recalled Paz as being a good athlete. “I remember I would tease him about Michigan State football team which was awful at the time,” he said.

December 16

On the night of December 16 - a Saturday - Haddad and Paz and two other officers decided to go out for dinner. Due to the political situation, the freedom of movement of U.S. troops outside their bases was restricted and local bars, night clubs or casinos in Panama City were off-limits. In fact, the day before, Noriega had made a thumping speech naming himself head of state and declaring that a state of war now existed between Panama and the United States.

U.S. officials didn’t take his words especially seriously. “Most observers at the Southern Command … recognized it for what it was - more political theater,” said Lawrence Yates, a military historian who was in Panama at the time.

So, Haddad and his friends went ahead with plans to go to dinner at the upscale Marriott Hotel, which involved driving about 10 miles across town to a quiet residential neighborhood on the bay. They piled into Haddad’s Chevrolet Impala, unarmed and in their civilian clothes, and drove out of their base housing on Fort Clayton.

“I was driving and I wasn’t paying attention. I was chit-chatting with the guys,” said Haddad. He recalled he was talking with Paz about sports. Paz was a keen soccer player and swimmer. Haddad was a rugby player and had been impressed with Paz’s fitness when they ran together. “He was fast so I think I was trying to recruit him to play rugby,” said Haddad.

Along the way they took a wrong turn, and ended up lost in a maze of narrow, one-way streets near Noriega’s military headquarters, La Comandancia, in the El Chorillo district.

They ended up being stopped at a checkpoint by Panamanian soldiers. A crowd had already gathered after a U.S. Navy officer and his wife had been stopped in the same spot and were detained. The two cars in front of Haddad at the checkpoint were waved through before it was the Panamanian soldiers from the notorious Macho de Monte infantry unit turned their attention on the Americans.

“We were in my big American Chevy Impala with bright blue Michigan tags so it wasn’t hard to figure out who we were,” said Haddad. His roommate in the front passenger seat, Navy Lt Mike Wilson from California, also stuck out with blond hair and blue eyes. “We popped out our American military IDs and they started basically reading us the riot act, pulled open our door and one guy is sticking his Ak-47 in my ribs,” he said.

Haddad spotted a member of Noriega’s thuggish militia, the Dignity Battalion, in the crowd with a large machine gun and he feared the situation was deteriorating. It was a three-way intersection, but all the escape routes were blocked, until Haddad says he saw a police vehicle moving away, leaving one road open.

Haddad shouted to his passengers whether to make a run for it, or not. “If we’re going, we have to go now,” he said. “They said, ‘Go,’ so I punched it. We probably got 30-40 meters before the guys in the roadblock opened up on us,” he said.

He tried to swerve to avoid the gunfire, but several bullets impacted the car. Haddad felt one hit him in the foot and another pierced the trunk and struck Paz in the back.

Realizing Paz was badly wounded, Haddad drove as fast as he could back towards the safety of the U.S. canal zone to get to the nearest U.S. hospital. They made it to Gorgas Hospital in under five minutes he reckons. “We got him out of the car and onto a stretcher,” he said.
But it was too late. The bullet had ruptured Paz’s renal artery. “He bled out,” said Haddad.

He remembers being interrogated for hours at the military Operations Center. Some of the officers were skeptical of Haddad’s story at first, feeling he had perhaps acted imprudently. But the mood changed when they got word that the Navy officer and his wife had also been detained at the same checkpoint and had witnessed the shooting. The couple were later released but only after the officer said he was repeatedly hit and kicked and his wife was fondled, slammed against a wall and threatened with rape.

According to a statement issued at the time by the Panamanian National Guard “a US vehicle burst into the streets near the headquarters of the Defense Forces and fired shots at the headquarters.” This version was denied by the Southern Command which said the officers involved in the incident were disarmed.

In photos: Lt Robert Paz and his family taken at the time of his death in 1989

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Just Cause

Haddad realized immediately what the consequences might be. The Bush administration had been warning for some time that any threat to American lives in Panama would not be tolerated. Haddad noticed that one of the generals interrogating him periodically made calls on a red phone which he assumed was connected to the Pentagon or the White House.

The next day President Bush made his decision and approved execution of the invasion plan, dubbed Operation Just Cause.

Two days later, in a televised address from the White House as the invasion was getting underway, Bush said Noriega had put the lives of Americans in Panama under threat.

“Forces under his command shot and killed an unarmed American serviceman, wounded another, arrested and brutally beat a third American serviceman and then brutally interrogated his wife, threatening her with sexual abuse. That was enough,” he said. “And that is why I directed our armed force to protect the lives of American citizens in Panama, and to bring General Noriega to justice in the United States.

The next day the Marines arranged a U.S. military plane to fly Paz’s body to Colombia, where his parents were living.

Haddad volunteered to escorting the body, honoring the Marine code that requires that a higher-ranking Marine accompany the one that is killed. “I insisted. I was the last Marine to see him alive, of course I’m going to go,” he said.

The family were waiting at Bogota airport where Haddad says he delivered the U.S. flag to Paz’s mother and spoke briefly with Paz’s younger brother, before flying back to Panama in time for the invasion which began 48 hours later.

According to military records he was buried in a cemetery in Villavicencio, a town south of Bogota.

Univision tried to locate his family in Colombia and Dallas, but without success.

Post mortem

A few weeks after Panama, the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Haddad was sent overseas again as part of Operation Desert Storm. There wasn’t a lot of time to think about Paz’s death between Panama and Kuwait. After Desert Storm he joined the Reserves and did an MBA at Paz’s alma mater, Michigan State, before retiring in 2008 after 24 years in the Marines.

Haddad it bothers him that Paz is just remembered as “a footnote in history.” He was also struck by the irony that a man with the last name Paz, meaning ‘peace’ in Spanish, was involved in an incident that led to war.

He dealt with Paz’s death as best he could. “Of course, it affected me,” he said. “Am I still dealing with it? probably not. I put it in the right place as a combat casualty. When you are in a fight, people die. All I have to do is turn on the news and you see it,” he added, referring to the more than 2,300 U.S. military deaths in the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan.

“Every one of those guys has a buddy like I was to Rob,” he said.


In photos: Panama's former dictator, Manuel Antonio Noriega, dead at 83.

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