During 1987 the United States increased pressure to remove Noriega, but this produced a backlash in Panama and other Latin American states. In 1988, two American federal grand juries indicted Noriega on drug charges, and the U.S. government further pressured the Panamanians to force him out. Based on the deteriorating situation, the U.S. military began to develop plans that would provide a range of options to deal with Panama.
The situation deteriorated further when Noriega overturned the results of a national election on 7 May 1989 and strengthened his personal hold on power in Panama. Although the Organization of American States (OAS) criticized Noriega, the regional body took no significant action to stop him. A Panamanian coup attempt on 3 October 1989 led Noriega to purge the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), further solidifying his control. Subsequently, Panamanian police and security forces increased their harassment of U.S. military personnel and other foreign citizens. This harassment and Noriega's increasing hostility toward the United States caused American leaders to refine the established plan to deal with the Panamanian strongman. The plan, code-named blue spoon, envisioned a joint invasion task force of 22,000 soldiers, complemented by another 5,000 personnel from the U.S. Marines, Navy, and Air Force. Approximately 12,000 personnel would begin the operation from the Panama Canal Zone. Significant special operations forces would also be involved in the invasion. The invasion force would face a PDF of 4,000 combat troops and another 8,000 personnel of Noriega supporters, known as the Dignity Battalions, who were basically armed thugs.
Violence against U.S. citizens escalated after the Panamanian National Assembly proclaimed on 15 December 1989 the existence of a state of war with the United States. Most troubling were the Panamanian security forces' murder of a U.S. Marine and the abuse of a navy officer and his wife. President George H. W. Bush and his advisors decided that the time to act had arrived. Bush ordered the military to proceed with a full-scale operation that had the highest probability of success through the application of overwhelming force. The overarching objectives of the operation were to protect U.S. citizens living in Panama, secure the Panama Canal and U.S. military installations, help the Panamanian people restore democracy, and arrest Noriega and bring him to the United States for trial.
Operation just cause began on 19 December 1989 with an airlift of Army Rangers and elements of the 82nd Airborne Division. A portion of the aircraft carrying the 82nd Airborne troops was delayed by a winter storm. This slowed the buildup of combat forces in Panama but had little effect on the operation's outcome. Combat operations commenced shortly before 1:00 a.m. local time on 20 December, when it had become clear that the PDF knew an attack was imminent. The first moves were by special operations units assigned to capture key facilities, block escape routes, and capture Noriega.
Noriega avoided initial capture and went into hiding, a major concern of military planners who feared that he would establish a guerrilla resistance against U.S. forces. Meanwhile, Army Rangers conducted successful drops on a series of targets around Panama City, with rapid reinforcement from the 82nd Airborne. Although some of the initial fighting was intense, the U.S. assault forces overcame the resistance and quickly established control. Airdrops were complemented by ground forces moving out of the Panama Canal Zone. These forces also encountered initially strong resistance but were able to rapidly overcome the Panamanian forces and gain their objectives. The key objective, capturing Noriega, was delayed until he sought refuge in the Vatican's embassy on 24 December. After his location was known, Panamanian resistance faded rapidly.
Diplomatic negotiations and a variety of pressure tactics eventually forced Noriega to surrender to U.S. authorities on 3 January 1990. He was then flown to the United States, where he would stand trial and be convicted on drug trafficking charges. After he had been isolated and then captured, U.S. efforts shifted to civil affairs—establishing stability and security—along with returning to power those government officials who had been elected in May 1989.
The use of overwhelming force allowed rapid victory and resulted in low casualties on both sides: 23 U.S. killed and 332 wounded in action; 297 Panamanian deaths, 123 wounded, and 468 captured. The rapid return by the Bush administration of control of the country to the Panamanians minimized Latin American opposition to the U.S. invasion.
Jerome V. Martin
Donnelly, Thomas, Margaret Roth, and Caleb Baker. Operation Just Cause: The Storming of Panama. New York: Lexington Books, 1991.; Tsouras, Peter G., and Bruce W. Watson, eds. Operation Just Cause: The U.S. Intervention in Panama. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991.