Twenty Years After US Invasion, Panama Still in Search of a Body Count

Twenty Years After US Invasion, Panama Still in Search of a Body Count

Rallies, religious ceremonies and visits to cemeteries took place in Panama this past weekend to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Operation Just Cause, the US invasion of the country that removed Gen. Manuel Noriega from power and led to the deaths of a still yet undetermined number of Panamanian civilians.

The anniversary prompted at least two organizations to reissue calls for an investigation into the actual number of victims of the military intervention.

The National Front for Social and Economic Rights stated that its intention was to “keep the memory of the assault alive” and protest the fact that “no one has assumed responsibility for the aggression, which constituted a violation of human and international rights.”

The left-wing Popular Alternative Party stated that, two decades after “the supposed liberation, the mask of deception, imposed by imperialism-friendly media, has finally fallen and revealed the savage and bloody realities of this genocide.”

In the early morning hours of December 20, 1989, about 21,500 US soldiers occupied key positions inside Panama City and unseated General Noriega, Panama’s strongman leader and a former Washington ally, charging him with collaborating with drug traffickers.

A 2002 United States Congressional report tallied 63 incidents in which the nation’s armed forces had been involved in Latin American affairs. Operation Just Cause was the last overt US military intervention of its kind in the region.

Noriega had been a close US ally until, in 1984, he called for the closure of the so-called School of the Americas, which over the years has trained thousands of Latin American soldiers and security personnel.

In their arguments justifying the invasion, the United States spoke of “protecting the lives of Americans living in Panama,” and “defending democracy and human rights.”

Various Central American parties are now fighting to understand and expose the true motivations behind the invasion, and to bring to light an accurate report of the number of civilian casualties, which several Panamanian organizations put at around 3,000.

The United States Southern Command estimates that Operation Just Cause claimed the lives of 314 Panamanian soldiers, 202 Panamanian civilians and 23 American soldiers.

Translation: Ryan Croken.

Ryan Croken is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. His essays and book reviews have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Z Magazine and ReligionDispatches.org. He can be reached at ryan.croken@gmail.com.