Americas

How the U.S. invaded Panama in search of dictator Manuel Noriega

Days after the U.S. invasion, an army helicopter ferries reinforcements to the Vatican embassy in Panama City. Gen. Manuel Noriega has taken refuge in the embassy after U.S. troop advancement forced him into hiding.
Days after the U.S. invasion, an army helicopter ferries reinforcements to the Vatican embassy in Panama City. Gen. Manuel Noriega has taken refuge in the embassy after U.S. troop advancement forced him into hiding. Miami Herald File

Former Panama dictator Manuel Noriega died this week. Here is a look back at the U.S. invasion of Panama and Noriega’s surrender. The report on the invasion was published December 21, 1989 in the Miami Herald.

Attacking by land, sea and air, waves of American troops invaded Panama under cover of darkness early Wednesday in a bid to break Gen. Manuel Antonio Noreiga's grip on power and to bring him to Miami to face drug charges.

READ MORE: How Noriega landed in a Miami jail after invasion

By midday Wednesday, more than 20,000 American troops were in control of key Panamanian installations, but the ever-elusive Noriega was still at large. Sporadic fighting continued in and around a smoldering capital city, and radio broadcasts urged supporters to launch guerrilla attacks against American troops.

Hours of ferocious combat left at least nine Americans dead and 39 injured, according to preliminary casualty reports. An undetermined number of Americans apparently were taken hostage by Panamanians wearing civilian clothing. Many Panamanian deaths were reported.

In Miami, where Noriega has been under indictment since February 1988, prosecutors pressed ahead with their case and Panamanian exiles followed events with a mixture of celebration and grief.

The strategically crucial Panama Canal was closed Wednesday, but officials planned to reopen it today. They said that it was not damaged in the fighting.

The United Nations Security Council scheduled an emergency session Wednesday to debate the U.S. military action. The Soviet Union condemned the invasion as a violation of the U.N. Charter. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain gave her support.

0012188588
A member of the U.S. invasion force aims a .45 at the head of a Panamanian suspected of being a member of Manuel Noriega's defense forces who had shed his uniform and dressed in civilian clothing to escape detection. DAVID WALTERS Miami Herald File

As the day progressed, thousands of American reinforcements landed in Panama to help secure captured positions and press the search for Noriega.

Conflicting reports had the resilient strongman still directing his battered forces, or hiding in a Panamanian or Colombian jungle outpost, or seeking asylum in the Cuban or Nicaraguan embassies in Panama City.

In any event, within eight hours Noriega had been transformed from self-proclaimed "Maximum Leader" of Panama into a fugitive sought by the full power of the American military.

"We will chase him, and we will find him, " Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington.

Also in Washington, President George Bush took to the airwaves Wednesday morning to explain the invasion and bemoan the human toll.

"Tragically, some Americans have lost their lives in defense of their fellow citizens, in defense of democracy, " Bush said during a nationally broadcast speech.

The president said he ordered the military strike to rid Panama of a dictator and alleged trafficker in Colombian cocaine, protect Americans in Panama, and help install "the democratically elected" opposition government.

Bush said that Noriega's "reckless" behavior had "created an imminent danger to the 35,000 American citizens living in Panama."

Opposition leader Guillermo Endara, winner of May elections that were nullified by Noriega, was sworn in as president early Wednesday and was given immediate U.S. recognition. But Endara and ranking aides remained in hiding, protected by American troops.

The American invasion came less than a week after Noriega's rubber-stamp government declared a "state of war" against the United States. On Saturday, a U.S. military officer was shot to death by Panamanians in what American officials called an unprovoked attack.

The full-scale U.S. assault began around midnight as diverse American forces attacked Panamanian military headquarters. Some troops landed on Panamanian beaches; others parachuted into or near important Panamanian installations; American tanks assaulted opposition military bases.

The capital's sky was bright with the light of gunfire for hours as blacked-out planes and helicopters roared overhead under a full moon. The U.S. Embassy was hit by one or possibly two rounds believed from a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

In all, more than 20,000 U.S. infantrymen, paratroopers, Marines, airmen and sailors were deployed, according to the Pentagon.

About 7,500 troops American troops from Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort Ord, Calif., and other domestic bases augmented the 13,000 Americans already assigned to protect the Panama Canal. About 2,500 reinforcements were dispatched later Wednesday.

Witnesses in nearby apartments said Noreiga's headquarters was in flames at 12:40 a.m. and virtually destroyed by 2 a.m.

Two paramilitary Panamanian troops who said they were Noriega loyalists arrived at the capital's Marriott Hotel at about 9 a.m. and took away three Americans and ordered them to lay face down in the back of a pickup truck.

The soldiers then asked the front desk for a list of guests and where they were staying. The desk said it did not give it to them. There is no security at the hotel.

NBC television said a CBS producer and an ABC producer were taken away from the Marriott at about 9:30 a.m. by plainclothes policemen carrying weapons. They remained in captivity at midday. A New York Times reporter was briefly detained.

"A lot of Panamanians have died, and we could kill you. Don't think we won't, " one of the Panamanians told the Times reporter.

Meanwhile, casualty reports were climbing. Dr. Marcel Pena of the Santo Tomas Hospital in Panama City said wounded had been coming in all night and the number increased with daybreak.

"There are many more than 50 dead and an enormous number of wounded, " he said.

Hospitals were short of blood, surgical materials and other supplies and were issuing international appeals for help, he said.

Fierce fighting raged for hours, and was followed by what the Pentagon called "mop-up operations."

U.S. military officials pronounced themselves satisfied with the course of events, but were disturbed that Noriega -- the primary target of the attack -- once again eluded capture.

The bellicose Noriega already has survived two coup attempts, a losing election, and tough U.S. economic sanctions.

Noriega's main bodyguard, Lt. Asuncion Gaitan, spoke on the national radio network after dawn Wednesday to say that Noriega was "well and in a safe place."

"Don't anyone give up your positions. In the provinces, prepare to resist. The attacks are going to continue when they find we are not going to cede, " he said.

Gaitan then gave a series of messages using code names and instructions. The codes mentioned names like "Alex, Omar, " or said, "Alex, take the man to the hangar and Yeyo."

Others were more comprehensible. One was a reference to the so-called "Dignity Battalions" of Noriega loyalists.

"Dignity Battalions -- operate in small operations during the day or look for positions and mix with the people who support you and at night move and act against the enemy positions in the periphery of the city."

The Panamanian Defense Forces, controlled by Noriega, have about 15,000 men.

American officials conceded that the failure to capture Noriega severely complicated U.S. attempts to stabilize the situation. They simply did not know how much of Noriega's support would survive the invasion.

John Bushnell, the highest-ranking U.S. official in Panama, said that fear will linger in Panama until Noriega is captured or otherwise removed from the scene.

"Having him loose does raise the potential that he might raise more mischief, " said Bushnell, the U.S. charge d'affaires. "I have the concern that until he is in custody, there is still going to be a great deal of concern and fear among the Panamanians."

In Miami, a lawyer for Noriega said the Panamanian leader would rather die than surrender to U.S. forces.

"He's a fighter, " said attorney Raymond Takiff, who spoke with Noriega Monday night. "I feel unhappily secure in my belief that he will be killed. He will not be captured. Should that occur, the truth will never come out."

Bush issued a memo to the Pentagon Wednesday specifically authorizing U.S. forces to apprehend Noriega "and any other persons in Panama currently under indictment in the United States for drug-related offenses" and to turn them over to U.S. law enforcement officials.

Noriega is wanted in Miami and Tampa on charges that he permitted Colombian drug mobs to ship tons of cocaine through Panama. If captured, he will be brought to Miami to stand trial, prosecutors said.

U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler, assigned as the trial judge in the Miami indictment, promised fair treatment.

"If Gen. Noriega is apprehended and brought here for trial, " the judge said Wednesday, "he would be given the same treatment as any other person accused of a crime -- no more, no less. All his rights will be protected."

Also closely following events were members of Miami's Panamanian exile community. One of them was Luis Endara, cousin of Guillermo Endara, who won the country's May election but was blocked by Noriega from taking power.

NORIEGA SURRENDERS

Published Jan. 4, 1990: Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the military ruler toppled by a massive U.S. invasion Dec. 20, left his Vatican embassy sanctuary Wednesday night and surrendered to American troops, setting off a joyous celebration in the streets of Panama City.

Noriega was quickly arrested by U.S. drug agents and put aboard a military plane bound for Homestead Air Force Base, where he was due to arrive early today. He faces arraignment today at U.S. District Court in Miami on federal drug trafficking charges that could bring up to 145 years in prison and $1.1 million in fines.

19900104A1 (2)
Miami Herald front page: Jan. 4, 1990. The Miami Herald

In Washington, President Bush announced Noriega's surrender in a nationwide address and said it fulfilled the final objective of the invasion.

As word of the surrender of the one-time "maximum leader" spread across the Panamanian capital, horns began to honk and fireworks went off around the Vatican mission. People yelled and laughed, and groups of youngsters raced up and down the streets waving Panamanian and U.S. flags.

"We are relieved to be rid of this criminal, " said President Guillermo Endara in a telephone statement broadcast on national television. "The people are happy to know that this monster has left our land."

"This is the happiest day of our lives, " one man said. "We suffered a lot under Noriega." "I feel free now."

Radio and television announcements of the news brought hundreds of cars into 50th Street near the center of what was once a thriving international financial center, with arms waving white handkerchiefs out car windows.

People stopped reporters and asked, "Is it official? Is he really gone?"

"I feel a very deep emotion, " said Reyna Luz Sandoval, 21. "The criminal is finally gone."

Many people shouted congratulations to U.S. troops patroling the streets and guarding the embassy. One American soldier came up to a car and said, "We are still looking for arms -- we are still enforcing curfew."

As Noriega's 10-day sanctuary neared an end Wednesday afternoon, thousands of Panamanians had held a raucous demonstration near the Vatican embassy, excoriating the general and urging the Vatican to force him out into the streets.

Panamanian Archbishop Marcos McGrath said Noriega made the decision to leave at about 5 or 6 p.m. Wednesday after hearing the shouts for his ouster.

"He communicated shortly after to the papal nuncio (Monsignor Jose Sebastian Laboa)" that he would leave, McGrath said on ABC's Nightline.

"I would suspect this would be the breaking of an illusion. He deceived himself that he was an emperor in this part of the world. That dream was shattered . . . He's undoubtedly a lonely man."

Noriega, who had taken refuge at the embassy on Christmas Eve, left the compound at 8:50 p.m. accompanied by Laboa.

"He looked vigorous and confident. He looked fine, " Gen. Maxwell Thurman, head of the U.S. Southern Command, told reporters at a briefing in Panama City.

Thurman said "no deals" had been made with the Vatican for Noriega's surrender.

Thurman thanked a delegation led by Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger for helping settle the 10-day impasse, but did not elaborate.

A spokesman for the Vatican mission, the Rev. Xavier Villanueva, said Noriega turned himself over to the American forces. Asked about Vatican conditions, he said, "The church only wants that he is treated well and that there is no death sentence."

Other church sources said Laboa had told Noriega he had only two options: to hand himself over to the Panamanian government or to the United States.

According to ABC News, the Vatican granted three requests made by Noriega, however: that he be allowed to make several phone calls before leaving the embassy, that he walk out in full uniform and that no news coverage of his departure be permitted.

Panamanian sources said the U.S. Southern Command had tried to convince Vicky Amado, Noriega's longtime mistress, to try to lure Noriega out of the embassy, apparently in a phone call to the Vatican mission.

But the sources, who asked not to be further identified, said that when Amado talked to Noriega for 10 minutes after her release from a U.S. military facility, she told him: "The decision is in your hands."

There was no immediate word on the whereabouts of Amado or of Noriega's wife and three children. His family had been holed up in the Cuban Embassy.

President Bush said Noriega had turned himself over to American authorities voluntarily and "with the full knowledge" of the Panamanian authorities.

After surrendering, Noriega was arrested by agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and escorted to a waiting U.S. Air Force C-130 transport, Bush said.

The president said Noriega's arrest completed the last of the four objectives of the U.S. invasion: safeguarding the lives of American citizens, helping restore democracy to Panama, protecting the integrity of the Panama Canal treaties and bringing Noriega to justice.

"The United States is committed to providing Gen. Noriega a fair trial, " Bush said.

"Nevertheless, his apprehension and return to the United States should send a clear signal that the United States is serious in its determination that those charged with promoting the distribution of drugs cannot escape the scrutiny of justice."

Noriega was taken to a church school across the street from the embassy and went through the school to where two U.S. Army helicopters were parked. The helicopters lifted off at about 9:10 p.m.

Noriega montage
Manuel Noriega, defiant and then a prisoner in Miami. Miami Herald File

Noriega's surrender ended a diplomatic stand-off between Washington, which insisted on capturing the former military leader to face drug charges, and the Vatican which vowed not to hand him over against his will.

"A free and prosperous Panama will be an enduring tribute" to the military action and the deaths of the more than 20 Americans in combat, Bush said.

Bush made his announcement from the White House briefing room at 9:40 p.m. and left without answering questions.

During his stay at the Vatican mission, Noriega was a virtual recluse in a room, opening the door only when meals were brought, said a churchman who did not want to be named.

Noriega had no access to radio or television and no communications with the outside world except what he heard through Laboa, the Spaniard who is Pope John Paul II's personal envoy to Panama.

From his window in the three-story embassy, Noriega could see a ring of barbed wire, military vehicles and U.S. soldiers in full combat gear waiting for him to step outside.

He had to put up with the noise of U.S. army helicopters constantly buzzing overhead or landing in a nearby field.

Civilian cars with soldiers inside blocked all three entrances to the embassy and powerful lights were focused on it.

For several days and nights last week, U.S. soldiers, apparently trying to increase pressure on Noriega, played rock music at top volume. The music stopped after the Vatican complained of harassment.

Panamanian Pilot Eduardo Pardo, a co-defendant of Noriega, was flown into Homestead Air Force Base earlier Wednesday night. Pardo is charged with flying a plane from Fort Lauderdale to Panama with $800,000 in drug profits on board, according to the 1988 drug indictment. Pardo faces five years in prison and $10,000 in fines if convicted.

A growing crowd of Cubans and Panamanians assembled Wednesday night outside the gates of the air base awaiting Noriega's arrival. Some of them held up signs reading, "Noriega today, Castro tomorrow. We support Bush."

"Exiles will probably return to Panama once everything is back to normality, " he said. "We will probably see for the first time an emigration back to a country that has been liberated."

To further support Noriega's opposition, President Bush said he intends to turn over the Panama Canal as required under existing treaties. And he ordered the lifting of the U.S. economic sanctions and "an orderly unblocking of Panamanian government assets in the United States."

American officials said the Panamanian opposition leaders -- President Endara, and Vice Presidents Ricardo Arias Calderon and Guillermo Ford -- were sworn in at an undisclosed site early Wednesday as the military action was getting under way.

The oath was witnessed by two officials of Panama's human rights association, because no Panamanian government official could be enlisted to participate.

  Comments