Shortly after midnight on December 20, 1989, Don Felipe—a Panamanian man now in his fifties—emerged from his house near Río Hato military base, 52 miles west of Panama City. He cannot remember why he went wandering outside at such a late hour, but he does remember what happened after he killed the snake that appeared in his path.
Don Felipe imitates the sound of incoming aircraft, followed by explosions. This was Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion that ousted Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. The crafting of the “just cause” required the vilification of Noriega on account of drug trafficking and other unsavory activities—all of which had also taken place during his decades of partnership with the CIA.
Standing in the ruins of Noriega’s beach house near Río Hato, Don Felipe looks out to sea as he recalls the terror of December 20. His daughter, three years old at the time, asked him to take her away from the bombs. “Where could I take her?” he says.
His neighbor’s family fled in their car. It was fired on by U.S. helicopters and a teenage son perished. Don Felipe could not understand such errors in a military operation touted as a triumph of surgical precision.
A few days after speaking with Don Felipe, I attended a birthday party in the nearby town of Coronado, where I discussed the surgical issue with a former member of the U.S. Air Force who was intermittently dancing with a bottle of rum in each hand.
The man shouted over the music that he had first been stationed in Panama from 1995-99, during which time he had participated in the dismantling of the U.S. military presence in the Panama Canal Zone. It then emerged that this had not in fact been his first tour of duty in the country and that he had additionally been present for Operation Just Cause, calling in air strikes from the ground in Panama City.
He outlined his duties:
I would call up to the pilots and tell them bomb here, bomb here! They would call me back all anxious and say, ‘Did we kill anyone?’”
As it turned out, an affirmative answer was required to soothe pilot anxiety. According to the rum-dancer, part of his job was to ensure that only the bad guys were killed.
When I asked how it was that 3000 civilians had nonetheless reportedly perished in the poor Panama City neighborhood of El Chorrillo, he claimed that Noriega had positioned bad guys among civilians so as to deter attack but that “We showed them!” Curiously, he refrained from contesting the number of fatalities, which the U.S. prefers to insist was in the low hundreds.
Following my suggestion that poor people might not be effective human shields, the dancer became annoyed and asked how old I was and if I had ever heard of World War II. I said no.
Undeterred, he asked if I had heard how many innocent people had died in that particular conflict. “Way more than 3000,” I was told. “Three thousand is a tiny number.”
We progressed to discussing 9/11, whereupon the tiny number metamorphosed into “a different thing” because this particular slaughter of innocents did not occur in the context of a war.
Judging from the mass of fire- and manpower unilaterally unleashed against the nation of Panama in 1989, neither did Operation Just Cause.