United States Intervenes in Panama Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Army invaded Panama on December 20, 1989, in order to arrest the country’s military strongman, Manuel Noriega, on charges of international drug trafficking, money laundering, and racketeering.

Summary of Event

Following the death of his leader and mentor Omar Torrijos Herrera in 1981, Manuel Noriega gained control of the Panamanian government. He did this with a combination of guile, cruelty, and tactics of terror. As head of the Panama Defense Force (PDF) G-2, the intelligence branch of the Panamanian army, Noriega had dossiers on every major political figure in the country. Noriega had a notorious reputation as an abuser of women and a heavy drinker, but Torrijos kept him on the job because Noriega had organized the country’s internal security forces so effectively. As the months passed, Torrijos seemed to lose interest in the everyday management of the country’s political and economic affairs. This gave Noriega even more power from his G-2 position. In July, 1981, Torrijos lost his life when the airplane in which he was a passenger crashed into the top of one of Panama’s western mountain peaks. Although Torrijos’s death was never linked to any political machinations, Noriega certainly profited from it. Panama, U.S. invasion [kw]United States Intervenes in Panama (Dec. 20, 1989) [kw]Intervenes in Panama, United States (Dec. 20, 1989) [kw]Panama, United States Intervenes in (Dec. 20, 1989) Panama, U.S. invasion [g]Central America;Dec. 20, 1989: United States Intervenes in Panama[07490] [g]Panama;Dec. 20, 1989: United States Intervenes in Panama[07490] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 20, 1989: United States Intervenes in Panama[07490] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 20, 1989: United States Intervenes in Panama[07490] Noriega, Manuel Torrijos Herrera, Omar Spadafora, Hugo Paredes, Rubén Darío

At the time of Torrijos’s death, only one PDF officer, Rubén Darío Paredes, stood between Noriega and his command of the army. Noriega persuaded Paredes to resign his military command and run for Panama’s presidency. However, Noriega withdrew his promised backing and deserted Paredes after taking over the PDF in August of 1983.

Torrijos’s onetime political heir and supporter was Hugo Spadafora, a physician who fiercely opposed Noriega’s takeover and divulged information to the American Drug Enforcement Administration Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. (DEA) about Noriega’s previous drug dealings with the American-backed Contras in Nicaragua. To the new head of the PDF, Spadafora represented an enemy and potential political rival. In September of 1985, Noriega’s henchmen murdered Spadafora because of his continual public condemnation of the PDF leader.

Throughout his political career, Noriega had maintained clandestine relationships with various U.S. governmental bodies, such as the U.S. Army, the Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency;Manuel Noriega[Noriega] (CIA), and the DEA. It has been estimated that Noriega received in excess of $320,000 in payments from these organizations for information that he supplied to them.

Agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration escort Manuel Noriega onto a U.S. Air Force aircraft on January 1, 1990. The former Panamanian leader was flown to Miami, Florida, where he was tried on drug charges.

(U.S. Department of Defense)

Once Noriega gained control of the PDF he seemed to feel that he no longer needed U.S. financial or political backing. The PDF leader stopped cooperating with the United States and took a leading role in the highly profitable movement of drugs from South America to the United States. This caused a substantial increase in the flow of narcotics into the United States. As a result, the U.S. government felt that Noriega, as head of Panama’s political leadership, had to go. Noriega refused to resign as head of the PDF despite intensive behind the scenes efforts by the American government to force the general to do so.

Despite the fact that the U.S. government had ceded control of the Panama Canal Zone to the Panamanians in September of 1977, approximately thirteen thousand American troops were still stationed in Panama under existing treaties between the two countries. Soon the bellicose attitude of Panama’s leader led to a series of clashes between the Americans stationed in the canal zone and members of the PDF. When Americans crossed over into Panamanian territory they were subjected to harassment and abuse by Noriega’s police. One American serviceman was killed and another was wounded when the two failed to halt at a PDF roadblock. A U.S. naval officer and his wife had been roughed up at the same checkpoint earlier in the evening.

Adding to the tension was Noriega’s statement to Panama’s National Assembly of Representatives that a state of war existed between the two countries. As a result, on December 20, 1989, President George H. W. Bush announced the commencement of Operation Just Cause, Operation Just Cause and the U.S. Army launched a full-scale invasion of Panama. An additional thirteen thousand troops were ferried into the country. Five separate task forces attacked various PDF strong points. The Panamanian troops put up little resistance. In total, fifty Panamanian and twenty-three American soldiers were killed during the military action.

When Noriega contacted his PDF officers, he learned of their failure to oppose the invaders. Noriega’s PDF was not an army of fighters but, rather, an ill-trained police force interested primarily in using its power for self-advancement. Soon the PDF soldiers disappeared from the streets of the capital and the populace commenced wholesale looting of the city’s stores.

Noriega was on the run. He headed first to a recreation center near the Tocuman airport. He paused briefly at the home of his driver and then moved on to the residences of other supporters. Noriega told his bodyguard Captain Ivan Costello that he might head for the mountains and set up a guerrilla operation. Poorly trained to conduct that style of warfare, Noriega finally decided that his best course would be to seek diplomatic asylum.

He sought sanctuary in the Vatican embassy, much to the discomfiture of Monsignor José Sebastían Laboa, the Vatican’s ambassador to Panama. Laboa persuaded Noriega that his best opportunity for the future was to turn himself over to the Americans and demonstrate his innocence in a public trial. Accordingly, Noriega surrendered to American Maxwell Thurman, the head of the American forces. Noriega was transported to Miami, tried, and convicted of drug running, racketeering, and money laundering. On September 16, 1992, he was sentenced to forty years in prison. In 1999, his term was reduced to thirty years. The existing Panamanian government indicated that it would seek his extradition in order to try him for murder.


In their desire to acquire information, American espionage specialists enlisted the aid of Manuel Noriega. In turn, Noriega exploited his American contacts for his own purposes. Despite his known criminal activities in arms and drug smuggling, the Americans sought Noriega as an ally in their own attempts to control the shipment of drugs to the United States from South America. It was only when Noriega refused to resign as the head of the PDF that the U.S. government launched the invasion that led to his overthrow. Panama, U.S. invasion

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dinges, John. Our Man in Panama: The Shrewd Rise and Brutal Fall of Manuel Noriega. New York: Random House, 1991. A detailed biography of the Panamanian dictator from his youth in the barrios of Panama City to his incarceration in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kempe, Frederick. Divorcing the Dictator: America’s Bungled Affair with Noriega. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1990. A reporter’s account, based on more than three hundred interviews with friends and enemies of Noriega.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koster, Richard M., and Guilllermo Sánchez. In the Time of Tyrants: Panama: 1968-1989. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. Detailed descriptions of the cruelty and torture inflicted on the Panamanian people by Noriega and his henchmen and the collusion of various U.S. authorities with the dictator.

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Categories: History