Former dictator of Panama Manuel Noriega died on Monday, prompting media outlets throughout the Americas and elsewhere to reflect on his legacy – a legacy dominated by the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama that was intended to end his rule. Noriega, who was well-known for his ties to the CIA, was removed from power in what was then the largest American military action to take place since Vietnam due to his connections to drug trafficking and brutality.
While there is no denying that Noriega was a dictator, media reports on his death have largely failed to acknowledge the real motives behind the fall of grace of a man who was a long-time CIA asset, receiving $100,000 from the intelligence agency annually for his “help.” Indeed, both of the crimes that allegedly led the U.S. to remove Noriega – drug-running, and brutality – were committed with the full knowledge – and likely the assistance – of the CIA.
The U.S. justification for the invasion of Panama cited Noriega’s drug-running operation in tandem with infamous narcotraficante Pablo Escobar, who in recent years was also revealed to be a CIA asset. Indeed, the 2007 crash of a CIA plane in Mexico bound to the U.S. – filled with 4 tons of cocaine – suggests that this is a habit the agency never intended to kick – and still hadn’t when the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989.
In addition, Noriega’s brutality was already considered problematic by U.S. authorities at the time. Noriega, who had political opponents butchered and regularly sent violent supporters into the streets to intimidate the opposition, did so with the full knowledge of the U.S., which sought to keep him in power as long as he remained useful.
During Noriega’s time in power, the U.S. backed numerous military dictatorships throughout Latin America, such as the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and none of these leaders were subjected to the unilateral invasion and coup that targeted Noriega. Clearly, “brutality” was not the motive.
Noriega’s true crime could be found in his attempts to act independently from the U.S., along with the fact that he – perhaps naively – tried to play both sides of the struggle between the U.S. and Latin American leftists. Noriega’s fate was most likely sealed, however, when he displayed minimal enthusiasm about aiding the CIA and their Contra army in waging a hellish war against Nicaraguan civilians.
“Overwhelming force” directed at innocent citizens of Panama
But more troubling than the U.S.’ real reasons for taking out Noriega was the invasion itself. Nearly 27,000 U.S. troops were sent to Panama to hunt for a single man. However, the massive deployment was indicative of the Colin Powell doctrine of “overwhelming force” that would make itself known in the years to follow.
While U.S. media justified the intervention as necessary due to Noriega’s abuses of human rights, the invasion itself violated human rights on a massive scale and left scores of innocents dead. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that civilians, particularly those living in the El Chorillo neighborhood of Panama City, where Noriega was born, were intentionally targeted by the U.S. military in order to terrify them into submission.
Three hours before U.S. forces razed El Chorillo to the ground, American officials had been informed by a European diplomat about Noriega’s exact location. While the diplomat had been “100-percent certain” of the dictator’s whereabouts, he stated that “when I called, SouthCom [the U.S. southern military command] said it had other priorities.”
What followed was the near-complete destruction of one of Panama City’s poorest neighborhoods. According to anonymous witnesses, whose testimonies were recounted in the award-winning documentary The Panama Deception, “The North Americans began burning down El Chorillo at about 6:30 in the morning. They would throw a small device into a house and it would catch on fire. They would burn a house, and then move to another and begin the process all over again. They burned from one street to the next. They coordinated the burning through walkie-talkies.”
Aside from the mass burnings of homes, innocent civilians were crushed by tanks and executed in the street by U.S. forces, who later piled the corpses together and burned them. Survivors were allegedly hired to fill mass graves and were paid $6 per corpse. To top it all off, U.S. forces also indiscriminately bombed El Chorillo.
The Central American Human Rights Commission (COEDHUCA) estimates that between 2,000 and 3,000 Panamanians were killed in the invasion, likely a conservative estimate.
The U.S. invasion of Panama is indicative of how the U.S. has treated Latin America for much of the past century. According to historian John Coatsworth, the U.S. overthrew 41 governments in Latin America between 1989 and 1994, many of which were targeted in order to teach Latin Americans “to elect good men,” as Woodrow Wilson had once put it. However, the invasion of Panama also paved the way for later U.S. military intervention.
Conducted unilaterally and internationally condemned, the invasion of Panama sent a clear message that the U.S. military was free to do as it pleased, unbound by ethics or laws. Not only that, but the invasion marked the first time that the restoration of “democracy” had been used as a justification for “humanitarian-based” unilateral action, making the U.S.’ imposition of its definition of democracy on other nations more important than the precept of national sovereignty.
Feature photo | Manuel Antonio Noriega waves to supporters, in the presidential palace in Panama City. Noriega, a onetime U.S. asset who later was ousted by an American invasion in 1989, died late Monday, May 29, 2017, at age 83. John Hopper | AP