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The invasion of Panama 30 years on: the extraordinary tale of two enemies who became friends

December 19 marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Panama that left hundreds dead. This is the little known story about two men in uniform on opposing sides - General Marc Cisneros and Captain Amadis Jimenez - who played a significant and highly unusual role in limiting the bloodshed.
(Lea este articulo en español)
9 Dic 2019 – 04:25 PM EST
Captain Amadis Jimenez (left) and Gen (Rt) Marc Cisneros remain close friends 30 years after they fought on opposing sides in the invasion of Panama. Crédito: David Adams / Univision

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – They were officers, one a U.S. Army general and the other a Panamanian Navy Infantry captain, on opposite sides of a lopsided war.

Theirs is the largely untold story of the invasion of Panama that unfolded almost 30 years ago, in the late hours of Dec. 19, 1989.
In the official version of Operation Just Cause as it was baptized by the Pentagon, more than 26,000 U.S. troops, backed by helicopters, gunships, tanks and even stealth fighters, struck with overwhelming force shortly before midnight.

Within hours, the military dictatorship of Gen. Manuel Noriega was toppled, and a democratic government installed.

Some 400 Panamanians and 23 U.S. soldiers died in the invasion. But many more Panamanian families might be grieving today were it not for the bravery and ingenuity of Lt General Marc Cisneros and Captain Amadis Jimenez.

Cisneros, now 80 years old, had a distinguished 35-year military career and was the highest-ranking Hispanic military officer by the time he retired in 1996.

He fought in the legendary Tet offensive in Vietnam in the late 1960s. But it’s his role in the 1989 invasion of Panama – and what he did with Jimenez - that he will be most remembered for, perhaps.

Twenty years his junior, Jimenez just turned 61 and still lives in Panama. Almost 30 years later the two remain firm friends. They told their story to Univision when they got together recently in Texas where Cisneros now lives.

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Amadis Jimenez barely had time to celebrate his promotion to captain when all hell let loose.

“They started to bombard me,” he recalled. It was 11.20pm and little did he know but the invasion of Panama had begun.

His naval infantry unit was among the few to put up much resistance, according to official reports by the Pentagon.

Unlike the majority of his fellow soldiers in the Panama Defense Forces, Jimenez was the married to the daughter of an influential businessman, Jackie Vallerino. His wedding four years earlier even attracted the attention of his boss, General Manuel Noriega, Panama’s mercurial strongman, a former CIA informant who turned against the United States and was indicted on drug trafficking charges.

“The Vallarino family were at the top of the social ladder, and [Noriega] sent an officer to tell me that he’d pay for the reception,” said Jimenez. Noriega suggested the couple hold the event at Panama’s posh Union Club. “He said I could invite as many officers as I wanted from the Defense Forces,” Jimenez added.

The couple rejected the idea and opted instead for a small, family celebration. Even so, since Noriega ran the country, he sent some officers – uninvited - to the party.

Jimenez feared he would never get his promotion to captain because his wife’s family were considered part of the economic elite that opposed Noriega’s dictatorship. But thanks to the recommendations of other senior officers, he promotion finally came through on Dec 13 and he assumed six days later in the Coco Solo naval base, strategically located at the entrance to the Panama Canal on the country’s Atlantic coast.

At that time, the United States still had a major military presence in bases along the banks of the canal designed to protect one of the world’s most important commercial waterway stretching 40 miles connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. (The bases were returned to Panama in 1999 as part of a treaty agreement.)

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When Jimenez and his unit of 40 men came under attack, the firepower was overwhelming. “All we had were rifles, nothing more, we didn't even have hand grenades, rocket launchers, nothing,” he said.

His barracks was attacked by air and land with helicopter gunships, heavy machine guns and a tank. A photo of the base shows its walls pock-marked with holes from the bullets and explosions of shells.

“So, we had no choice but to stay there and defend ourselves as best we could,” he said.

Some of Jiménez’s men, most of whom he barely knew, tried to escape. Other fell injured. He choked up as he described how one of his men was struck in the head by a grenade. “The sergeant died in my arms,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. “I didn’t even know his name as I had only just taken command,” he added.

Jiménez recalled the roof caught fire and U.S. troops entered the building. In such a dire situation, he had to make a quick decision.

One of the U.S. soldiers shouted in Spanish, “Cease fire, cease fire.” Jiménez shouted back, “we are going to surrender, everyone take it easy.” Asked to identify himself, Jiménez explained he was the unit captain.

One of his men begged him not to surrender. “They are going to kill us all,” the soldier told him.

But Jiménez said they had no choice to trust the U.S. soldiers. He was the first to surrender, telling his men to lay down their weapons. He was separated from his troops and taken to a U.S. military base as a prisoner of war.

To his surprise, the next day he got a visit for the head of the U.S. Army in Panama, General Marc Cisneros. It was a meeting that unbeknownst to him would seal his fate and that of thousands of Panamanians.

Cisneros wasn’t at all convinced that the U.S. military strategy was the right one. In the weeks running up to the invasion, the plan had been bolstered with the addition of extra firepower. Cisneros felt the strategy involved excessive use of force and would lead to unnecessary bloodshed.

"I think we could have done it with less troops and less destruction. We made it look like we were battling Goliath," he said. "We were mesmerized with firepower. We had all these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff," he said.

Furthermore, despite being the head of U.S. Army South (USARSO) in Panama, he was effectively sidelined by the generals commanding the invasion attack forces flown in from the United States. The invasion force was put under the command of General Maxwell Thurman, a stern, by-the-book officer with little or no combat experience, known universally as ‘Mad Max.’

The Panama-based units commanded by Cisneros were left to provide a backup role.

But Cisneros was having none of that. Left to his own devices he struck out on his own to try and limit the damage. “Cisneros was sidelined, but it allowed him to get out of the Operations Center. He had no role to play there, so he went out into the field instead,” said Lawrence Yates, a military historian and author of the most authoritative account of the invasion commissioned by the U.S. Army’s Center for Military History.

Yates was in the U.S. Army Operations Center in Panama during the invasion and recalled mortars landing near the headquarters in the early hours of the attack.

“During the invasion he’s out of a job, but he’s traveling all over the country. It’s just incredible what he did,” said Yates. ““We owe a very great debt to General Cisneros. He was the hero of Panama, but Thurman was never going to allow that. The problem was Thurman resented him and he outranked him,” he added.

According to Yates, and others, Thurman had little understanding of Panama and had only been in the country for a few weeks. He also didn’t trust the Spanish-speaking Texan. “It was two different mind sets. Thurman thought it was conventional warfare. He didn’t get it. He really didn’t like that Cisneros was the guy who knew what was going on,” said Yates. “Cisneros would talk about cultural awareness with his officers while
Thurman went around in his military fatigues trying to impress everyone,” he added.

The perfect partner

Cisneros found the perfect partner in Jimenez. When he got wind that U.S. forces had captured a Panamanian officer his curiosity was piqued by word that the prisoner was married to an influential family tied to the political opposition.

So, he jumped on a helicopter and flew from his headquarters in Fort Clayton, on the Pacific side of the canal.

“I told him that I wanted him to help me end the combat, because, at the end of the day the United States wasn’t going to lose,” said Cisneros. “There’s no way for such a large and huge country as the United States to lose a battle with a country as small as Panama,” he added.

Jimenez vividly recalls their conversation. “The general tells me: ’Amadis, I need you to help me, I need to stop the bombing, I believe that this [the outcome of the invasion] is already a done deal and we must avoid bloodshed,” he said.

Jimenez’s base at Coco Solo was a stone’s throw from Panama’s second largest city, Colón, a major port and free zone, but with a mostly poor,
black population that Cisneros knew would be happy to be rid of Noriega. Cisneros told Jimenez; “If the [Panamanian] officers surrender, and begin to hand over their weapons, I can convince the American commanders not to bomb Colón.”

Cisneros says Jimenez was quick to understand his reasoning and the opportunity that presented itself. “As a soldier, he was one of the very few officers who fought and didn’t abandon his troops, and I admire those officers who stand by their men,” Cisneros said.

Jiménez asked for his phone book where he had the numbers for Noriega’s commanders at Panamanian bases around the country so he could set about persuading them to surrender. “The general sent his soldiers to locate it in my unit,” said Jimenez.

Cisneros brought Jimenez back to the U.S. Army headquarters with him and they began their own little war. “Amadis would go with me everywhere I went. He was indispensable,” said Cisneros.

Cisneros said he barely discussed anything with Thurman, and certainly never asked for his permission. “I went wherever I wanted. I was worried about the next phase. I was on my own. I didn’t ask anyone. I didn’t feel the need. I was still the commander of U.S. Army South and the in-country troops,” he said.

The few who knew about it at the time referred to it as the ‘Ma Bell’ offensive, a reference to the old Bell Telephone Company that held a monopoly on telephone services the U.S. before it was broken up in the 1980s.

“This is General Cisneros”

Cisneros’s gut feeling had been right. Noriega’s commanders weren’t interested in putting up a fight and were caught off guard when they got the call. “They were very surprised that I was on the phone, because Amadis began the conversation with them. Then I told them, ‘This is General Cisneros,’ the general recalled.

They all knew who Cisneros was. He was practically a household name in Panama at the time due his ability to make plain-spoken radio interviews Spanish in which he frequently lambasted Noriega. The son of a mechanic brought up on the Texas border with Mexico, he could have been drawn straight out of central casting. Tall, muscular and ruggedly handsome, he had looks that belied his 50 years.

The Panamanian military officers had two main concerns if they surrendered, one physical and the other legal. “The first thing they were worried about was that they were going to get beaten up,” said Cisneros. During the two unsuccessful coup attempts against Noriega, officers suspected of disloyalty were tortured and beaten or executed. “I told them that we don't hit people in the American army, we're not like you,” Cisneros assured them.

The second concern was that they would be extradited. Cisneros explained that the only persons facing legal charges in the United States were General Noriega and one of his top officers, Colonel Luis del Cid.

Little by little, Jiménez and Cisneros convinced the Panamanian commanders to stand down. “Amadis got 75 percent of the Panamanian forces to surrender to me personally, that was principally because of him,” Cisneros said.

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"People describe Marc as having won the war with a telephone," said his former boss in Panama, Gen Fred Woerner. "He saw a way to accomplish the mission, and at the same time minimize the loss of life and destruction. He was the glue in Just Cause."

But Cisneros' superiors remained skeptical. "They couldn't believe it. They felt it was some diabolical trick," Cisneros said.

Hardest to convince was Noriega's right-hand man, Col. Luis del Cid, who commanded defense forces in Chiriqui province, a mountainous region near Costa Rica. Indicted with Noriega in Miami on drug charges, del Cid had more to lose than most.

Cisneros figured if del Cid surrendered it would send a strong message to the still-fugitive Noriega that the gig was up. "I told him that if he did not comply there was no escape. I think that's when he decided to surrender," he said.

But Thurman didn't trust del Cid. When Cisneros learned Thurman was planning to bomb him into submission, he feared lives would be needlessly lost. So, he dispatched Jimenez in a helicopter to talk with del Cid.

Once again, Cisneros read the situation right. Del Cid caved in. Noriega fled into the Vatican embassy the next day.

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Noriega and the Nuncio

Once the major combat was over, the focus of the U.S. operation turned to capturing Noriega. For several days he evaded a U.S. Special Forces team dedicated to hunting him down and placing him in the hands of the DEA.

A few days after the invasion, one of Noriega's bodyguards turned himself in, providing valuable intelligence information about where he might be.

Cisneros asked Jimenez if he would accompany a Military Intelligence unit to a location the bodyguard had provided. Jimenez agreed, though he pointed out that in his condition as a POW he didn’t have a weapon to protect himself. "I don't want to go without a weapon. If you give me a gun, I’ll go with them,” he told Cisneros.

Cisneros didn’t hesitate. “I pulled out my general’s pistol and handed it to him. My staff of gringos who were there, their mouths dropped. They couldn’t believe the level of confidence I had in him,” recalled Cisneros.

The Special Forces arrived at the location a few minutes late and Noriega remained at large a few hours more. But that moment cemented the special bond between the general and his prisoner. A few hours later Noriega sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama on Christmas Eve, creating a dramatic, 10-day standoff over the holidays.

At first, Thurman ringed the embassy with tanks and tried to psychologically defeat Noriega by blasting the embassy with rock music from loudspeakers mounted on armored vehicles as impatient crowds looked on. Noriega was treated to songs such as Linda Ronstadt’s ‘You’re No Good,’ and ‘I Fought the Law and the Law Won.’

After the Vatican complained, the Pentagon ordered Thurman to turn off the music.

Once again, Cisneros’ understanding of Panama and his Spanish language skills, would pay off. The Vatican ambassador, or ‘Papal Nuncio’, Monsignor Jose Sebastian Laboa, was a Spanish Basque who Cisneros had gotten to know well during his time in Panama. Thurman mistrusted the Vatican which had given asylum to some Basque terrorists. But Cisneros and Laboa shared a mutual respect.

President Bush issued a directive designating Cisneros as the U.S. negotiator. So, Cisneros moved into a school across the street from the embassy, sleeping on a military cot.

Laboa called Cisneros to meet him near the embassy, to ask him for a favor. "Wil you go in with your troops and remove him?" he asked Cisneros. The general responded that he could only do that if he had orders from the highest level, as embassies enjoy diplomatic protection.

The next day, Laboa gave Cisneros a verbal message saying U.S. troops could assault the compound if a hostage situation developed. “He told me, ‘If I am a hostage, then you have permission to enter to save me,’" Cisneros recalled. “But there had to be no doubt he was a hostage,” he added. The Pentagon requested that Laboa put it in writing, which he agreed to do.

Meanwhile, the crowds outside the embassy chanting anti-Noriega slogans got larger and more impatient. In one encounter with Cisneros, some in the crowd begged him to withdraw the U.S. troops so they could go in and deal with Noriega themselves.

That gave Cisneros an idea. He delivered to Laboa a message for Noriega. If Panamanians outside the embassy rioted and tried to break into the embassy, U.S. soldiers would not open fire on them to defend Noriega.

“Do you know what will happen to you? The same thing that happened to [Benito] Mussolini,” was the message given to Noriega, said Cisneros, referring to the Italian fascist dictator whose life was cut brutally short by a mob in 1945. “Do you remember how Mussolini was hanged by his people, in Italy? They caught him, they hanged him with his mistress. The same thing is going to happen to you. That’s what [Laboa] told Noriega,” he added.

After he was allowed a phone call with his own mistress, Noriega capitulated and agreed to surrender.

Before doing so he had one concern. The dictator was worried that he might face the death penalty in the United States if found guilty. The State Department advised Cisneros that the crime he was accused of did not carry the death penalty.

Noriega also asked to be allowed to surrender in his military uniform, which had to be sent for. “I told the Nuncio; ‘Look, here’s the uniform, I don’t care if he comes out in red underpants,’” said Cisneros.

On January 3, 1990, Noriega’s last day in the embassy, he had one last request. “He got outside the door, and asked for me to be there to surrender to me formally,” said Cisneros. But that was too much for the Texan. “I did not want the press to remember me as a general receiving another general, because I did not consider him a soldier, much less a general,” he added.

Cisneros gave instructions to a sergeant to search him without handcuffing him. He was immediately transferred to a helicopter and flown to a U.S. base to be put on a plane to Miami in the custody of the DEA.

Nation building

With Noriega in prison in the United States, and a new democratically-elected president, Guillermo Endara, installed in Panama, the focus of U.S. troops switched to reconstruction and “nation building.”

In a further demonstration of the trust placed in Jimenez, he was given a new mission as the official military liaison between Endara and Cisneros.
He accompanied Cisneros on trips all over the country reviewing what needed to be done to help the new government.

Jiménez recalled a trip when Cisneros was invited by a regional governor to visit a church.

“When the priest opens the door, the general kneels,” said Jimenez, laughing. “There was a hushed silence, and the general takes off his hat ... Everyone is astonished when the general looks at him and says; ‘Please give me your blessing’”, he said.

Cisneros only remained in Panama for six months after the invasion. Due to his testy relationship with Thurman he requested a transfer. But his friendship with Jimenez lasts to this day. “We keep in touch, we call each other every so often,” said Jimenez.

Jimenez has been a guest at Cisneros’ home in Texas on several occasions. On one recent trip they practiced their marksmanship on a shooting range, Jimenez getting to use the general’s pistol once more. They have also hunted together and went on holiday together to Spain.

“We have become very good companions, I consider him almost as a son,” says Cisneros who recently celebrated his 56 th wedding anniversary and has children of his own.

When asked how he feels about Cisneros, the Panamanian captain chokes up. “It’s very rare to see someone with the degree of human sensitivity that General Cisneros showed, despite having the all the power and control, to bomb [the enemy] into submission, that he avoided spilling more blood in Panama. That is why I feel the gratitude I have for him,” he said.

Asked if he felt the invasion was worth it, Cisneros said that old age has taught him to be less warlike.

While he is proud of the troops he commanded in Panama, “there is no justification in my opinion for any military operation where we are entering another country. We shouldn’t do it,” he said.

“But, if you had asked me when I was young, I was a tough guy then, I would have said yes, let’s get rid of him (Noriega.) The older one gets … the more one realizes that war is the biggest stupidity in the world,” he added.

Sabrina Alvarez contributed to this report.

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