Operation Just Cause

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In 1989, the United States invaded Panama to remove Dictator Manuel Noriega.  The invasion was one link in a chain of events dating back to the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914.
After 1914, the U.S. kept troops in Panama to ensure free access to the canal. During the Cold War, America cooperated with dictators around to world to try to stop the spread of communism.  Most Americans thought the dictators were the lesser of two evils.   One of them was General Manuel Antonio Noriega in Panama.

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Noriega was a ruthless tyrant with ties to the drug trade.  He cooperated with the CIA’s anti-communist operations in South and Central America, so the U.S. treated him like an ally.

As the Cold War ended, the U.S. grew less tolerant of Noriega’s crimes and the relationship went downhill quickly.  The U.S. believed Noriega was cooperating with Communist Cuba and smuggling weapons to Colombian rebels.  A Florida court indicted Noriega for drug trafficking.  American leaders asked Noriega to step down.
In response, the heavily armed Panama Defense Force (PDF) began to harass American troops and civilians in the Canal Zone.  Tensions reached a breaking point on December 16, 1989, after the PDF murdered an American Marine.

At 1:00 A.M. on December 20, 1989, 13,000 American Soldiers airlifted into Panama to join the 13,000 Soldiers and Marines already there.  The combined force attacked PDF forces in Panama City and fanned out to secure American lives and property throughout the city.

75 miles west of Panama City two F–117A stealth fighters bombed the airfield at Rio Hato.  The bombing paved the way for two battalions of Airborne Rangers who parachuted in to take the airfield.  A ferocious firefight began.  The Rangers had support from an AC–130 gunship and attack helicopters.  They engaged in close-range, room-to-room fighting with hand grenades and automatic rifles.  In less than five hours, the Rangers secured Rio Hato.

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The fighting in Panama City was more complicated because of the urban setting.  There were many civilians in and around the combat zone.  U.S. armored personnel carriers took heavy fire from surrounding buildings as they pushed their way through obstacles.  American troops moved floor-to-floor to clear snipers from high-rise apartment buildings.  At Fort Amador, the PDF made their stand within a hundred meters of an American housing area.

Some PDF soldiers hid among passengers from a stranded Brazilian airliner.  Others took hostages.  Sadly, when battles take place near civilians, innocent people often get caught in the crossfire.  At least 200 Panamanian civilians were killed in the fighting.

Most of the fighting was over within eight hours. The U.S. had 26 killed and 325 wounded. PDF casualties were 314 killed and thousands of captured or wounded. These lopsided results were due to a number of factors.  American Soldiers were better trained for night fighting and had better night-vision devices than the Panamanians.  The U.S. controlled the skies and used airborne and airmobile troops to attack many targets at the same time.  American air support was deadly.
Most importantly, U.S. troops had been in Panama for decades.  Our Soldiers were familiar with the terrain and many of their targets.  In some cases, American Soldiers had visited or even trained at their objectives in the weeks prior to the invasion

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Noriega fled and sought asylum in the Vatican Embassy.  U.S. forces surrounded the embassy, and Noriega surrendered after a short siege.  Noriega was eventually convicted of multiple counts of drug trafficking in a Florida court.  After serving his sentence in the U.S., Noriega was extradited, first to France and then Panama to face additional charges.  He remains in prison in Panama today.

On December 14, 1999, the American government surrendered its 100-year lease in Panama and evacuated the last of its military forces from the Canal Zone.

Adapted from

Chapter 12.  American Military History, Volume 2.  “Rebuilding the Army: Vietnam to Desert Storm.”  U.S. Army Center of Military History.