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Air-Conditioned Vestiges of an Empire


One end of the Tunnel

When I told my father recently about my morning jogs up Ancón Hill—located in Panama City’s Quarry Heights, former headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command—he emailed back to say that his own father, director of intelligence for SOUTHCOM from 1971-76, used to receive visits from Manuel Noriega in the Ancón Hill “Tunnel” during the latter’s service as director of military intelligence under Omar Torrijos.

Not known for my attentiveness to scenery, I asked what tunnel. He responded: The thing dug into the side of the hill.

Indeed, ascending the hill the following morning, I noted a cement edifice on my left—one end of the U.S. bunker, abandoned in accordance with the withdrawal of SOUTHCOM from Quarry Heights in the late 1990s.

Located not far from the Tunnel is the former house of U.S. General Marc Cisneros, a key player in the 1989 U.S. war on Panama to dislodge Noriega, who had by this time risen to the position of dictator and whose decades of cooperation with the CIA failed to avert his demise via “Operation Just Cause”. The house is currently inhabited by a Panamanian woman who drew my attention to the whirring machinery 10 meters from her front door as an indication that the bunker continues to be air conditioned, and who asked me why, if nuclear holocaust were visited upon the region, U.S. military commanders would wish to prolong their existence three years inside a tunnel. Aside from air conditioning, the Tunnel is reportedly equipped with other luxuries such as decontamination chambers, a church, and an SUV-sized paper shredder.

As for area residents with less access to protection from nuclear-themed destruction, these include the inhabitants of the impoverished neighborhood of El Chorillo, which according to FAIR was referred to as “Little Hiroshima” by ambulance drivers in the aftermath of the 1989 invasion. It is entirely possible that the civilian death toll of the concentrated U.S. assault outnumbered the civilian deaths accrued on 9/11; that the U.S. and its media have been able to claim only a few hundred Panamanian civilian deaths (while CBS reported that the families of the corpses were nonetheless exuberant about the toppling of Noriega) merely underscores the especial susceptibility of certain social strata to manipulations of the magnitude of their suffering in the interest of political expediency.

So that Operation Just Cause might live up to its name, the U.S. military reported that 50 pounds of cocaine had been discovered in a house regularly visited by Noriega at Fort Amador. The weight was subsequently inflated to 110 pounds, before it was revealed that the material in question was in fact a stash of tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Undeterred by the seeming innocence of the apprehended comestibles, Defense Dept. spokeswoman Kathy Wood announced that they constituted “a substance they use in voodoo rituals.”

As FAIR notes: “Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking was purportedly heaviest in the early 1980s when his relationship with the U.S. was especially close.”

Meanwhile, the justness of the delivery of Operation Just Cause has been called into question by General Cisneros himself, who had the following to say on the tenth anniversary of the invasion in 1999:

I think we could have done it with less troops and less destruction. We made it look like we were battling Goliath… We are mesmerized with firepower. We have all these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff.”



  1. MRW says:

    WHAT a great story!

  2. Sgt.Rocknroll says:

    I was stationed at the tunnel from 1975 to 1978. During that time there were no decontamination suits nor was there a church or chapel in the tunnel and I don’t remember any suv sized paper shredder. I worked at the very end of the tunnel where the DIA/SSO Watch center was located.
    It consisted of four rooms. The SSO took up two rooms where two officers and one NCO had offices and the other room was nothing but Special Intel. Crypto Equipment. On the other side of the hallway was the watch officer and the briefing room where all the camera monitors were that were watching all over the Zone. Beyond that the stairs went up several flights to the old WWII gun implacement that was bolted shut and locked. On the second filght up we had multiple incindiarys for destruction of the the crypto equipment.

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