Dec. 20, 2022

The US Invades Panama

The US Invades Panama

December 20, 1989. President George H.W. Bush launches a US invasion of Panama to depose the country's dictator, and former CIA informant, Manuel Noriega.


Cold Open

It’s February 1959 at the Chorrillos Military College in Lima, Peru.

A quiet, 25-year-old student is using the bathroom between classes.

He walks across to the basin and begins washing his hands. As he works up a soapy lather, the quiet student studies his appearance in the mirror. He’s always hated the way he looks. He’s short - barely over five feet - and chronic acne as a teenager left him with pock-marked cheeks and a cruel nickname: “Pineapple Face.” Between his lack of self-confidence and constant bullying, he has struggled to make friends.

The bathroom door bangs open and a group of his classmates walks in. As always, they ignore the quiet student, and head straight to the urinals, where they continue their animated conversation about a recent event that made headlines across the globe.

Last month, a Cuban revolutionary named Fidel Castro toppled the government of Cuba, turning the island into a communist stronghold and sparking genuine fear among anti-communist countries of a “socialist wave” spreading across Latin America.

The quiet student listens to his classmates’ chatter, absorbing every word…

When he’s done washing his hands, he turns off the faucet and heads back to class.

Later that day, he returns to his dorm room and settles down at a desk feeding a sheet of paper into his typewriter.

Then he begins transcribing from memory the conversation he overheard in the bathroom – every word related to Cuba, Castro, and communism in Latin America. Soon, he will pass these documents on to his handlers, who just a few weeks ago hired the young man to gather information. Pineapple Face is no ordinary college student. His name is Manuel Noriega, and he’s a paid informant for the CIA.

After graduating from the military academy in Peru, Noriega will return to his native Panama, where he will spend the next few decades climbing the ranks of the military. When a violent coup ousts the Panamanian government, Noriega will find himself catapulted into a senior role as head of military intelligence. And eventually, in 1983, he will emerge as the dictator of Panama, completing his stratospheric rise from a victim of bullying to one of Latin America’s most notorious strongmen.

Throughout this period, Noriega will remain one of the CIA’s most valuable assets, selling information about communism in Latin America. But when the dictator’s ruthless regime begins to make headlines around the world, the relationship between Noriega and the US will turn sour. Before long, President George H.W. Bush will decide to get rid of America’s once-trusted informant by launching an invasion of Panama to remove General Noriega from power on December 20th, 1989. 


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 20th, 1989: The US Invades Panama.

Act One: Emergence as Leader

It’s the morning of July 31st, 1981.

A small passenger plane sputters above the mountains of central Panama. Seated on board is a handsome 52-year-old man wearing army fatigues. General Omar Torrijos is the military dictator of Panama. This morning, he is on his way to visit local residents in the town of Coclesito, but his mind - as usual - is racing.

Torrijos takes out a cigar and clamps it between his teeth before lighting up. Then he closes his eyes and leans back in his seat. As the cabin fills with smoke, Torrijos reflects on the deal he recently struck with the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

The so-called “Torrijos-Carter Treaty” was the culmination of decades of effort, as the government of Panama sought to gain control over its most famous waterway: the Panama Canal. Since 1903, the canal has been controlled by the United States. But by signing this Treaty, the US has agreed to relinquish authority of the vital shipping lane to Panama by the year 1999 - provided that American ships retain access to its waters.

This agreement is a major victory for Panama, but the deal was made between Torrijos and Carter. But last year, Carter lost re-election. America’s new president, Ronald Reagan, was one of the most prominent opponents of the Panama Canal Treaty. Now that Reagan is in office, Torrijos is concerned that America might break some of the promises that President Carter made.

But today, Torrijos’ mind isn’t on Ronald Reagan alone. He’s also deeply concerned about a member of his own government. For years, Torrijos has been struggling to keep in check his own head of intelligence, Manuel Noriega.

Ever since the coup that thrust Torrijos into power, Noriega has been a loyal footsoldier for Panama’s government. His ruthlessness and cunning became an invaluable asset to Torrijos, who would always turn to Noriega whenever he needed an opponent silenced, or a foreign official bribed.

But Torrijos knows that Noriega feeds on vice and corruption. From drug trafficking to weapon smuggling, there are few criminal pursuits in which Noriega does not indulge. And normally, Torrijos turns a blind eye to these nefarious activities. But recently, Noriega went too far. Torrijos caught him selling guns to left-wing militants in El Salvador, an ally to Panama. That made the dictator furious. He reprimanded Noriega, but Torrijos stopped short of firing him altogether.

As the plane begins its descent, Torrijos tries to banish all thoughts of Noriega from his mind. Outside, the weather has turned stormy. A high-pitched whine is coming from the engine, as the aircraft begins to rattle and shake in the high winds. Growing alarmed, Torrijos casts his eyes forward toward the cockpit. He sees the pilots grappling with controls, their knuckles turning white around the throttle…

Suddenly, the plane lists violently to one side.

Fearful shrieks ripple throughout the cabin. And with trembling fingers, Torrijos buckles his seatbelt and pulls it tight. Through the window, he can see the forested mountainside rushing up toward him, getting ever closer as the plane nosedives toward the earth. Torrijos closes his eyes and murmurs a prayer. A split second later, the airplane crashes into the mountainside in a spectacular blaze of fire and debris.

The death of the popular and charismatic Torrijos will be followed by a public outpouring of grief across Panama. While most regard the plane crash as a tragedy, one man will recognize the General’s death as an opportunity…

Manuel Noriega has always been able to manipulate situations to his advantage. Since his twenties, Noriega has been selling information to the CIA - all the while following his other pursuits of drug trafficking and weapon smuggling. Even when US authorities began cracking down on the global narcotics trade, Noriega was immune from prosecution. His status as a valuable CIA asset left him free to do as he pleased.

And now, following the death of Torrijos, Noriega will outmaneuver his rivals to emerge as the military leader of Panama. Over the next few years, he will set about consolidating power. He will torture and kill his political enemies. He will implement widespread press censorship. And he will continue to make millions from the illegal trade of weapons and drugs. All the while, Noriega will still cooperate with the CIA, selling information pertaining to communist activities throughout Latin America.

But as reports of Noriega’s corrupt and brutal regime begin to make headlines, the United States government will change its policy toward the once-trusted informant. In 1988, a federal court in Miami will bring drug trafficking charges against the dictator. And when US intelligence discovers that Noriega has been selling American military secrets to Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba, the CIA will come to believe that removing the dictator from power will become a necessary measure to protect national security.

Still, the United States cannot simply remove a leader of a sovereign country without just cause. For the newly elected president, George H.W. Bush, it will take the killing of an American soldier to provide the final justification for sending US troops into Panama to depose Noriega by force.

Act Two: Bush Launches Invasion

It’s the evening of December 16th, 1989; four days before the America's invasion of Panama.

Lieutenant Robert Paz of the United States Marine Corps sits in the backseat of a white Chevrolet as it wends its way through the streets of Panama City.

Robert rolls down a window and drapes his short-sleeved arm against the door, enjoying the feeling of the warm air on his bare skin. He calls up to the driver and asks him to turn up the radio. Then Robert closes his eyes and listens to the pulsating music.

Robert is one of 12,000 US troops stationed in Panama, where they’re responsible for safeguarding American interests along the Panama Canal. In the past, relations between the US and Panama - and its authoritarian leader Manuel Noriega - have been friendly. But recently, things have soured. After losing the general election, Noriega claimed fraud, voided the results, and had his opponent arrested and beaten.

A few months later, representatives from the US government entered into negotiations with Noriega, urging him to resign peacefully. The Americans have grown tired of Noriega’s increasing brutality, authoritarianism, criminality, and double-crossing.

But just yesterday, Noriega made a speech reaffirming his position as “head of state” and declaring that the United States and Panama were now at war. American troops stationed in Panama have been advised to remain on high alert and directed not to leave their bases.

Despite these warnings, 25-year-old Lieutenant Robert Paz and his fellow soldiers are heading to a nearby Marriott Hotel for dinner. Up ahead, Robert sees a roadblock guarded by members of the Panama Defense Force – Noriega’s loyal band of thuggish militants. It dawns on Robert that his car, a Chevy with Michigan license plates, is unmistakably American. And this might cause trouble.

Slowly, the car rolls to a standstill at the roadblock. The guards surround the vehicle, brandishing AK-47s and shouting aggressively. Robert tells the driver to back up. And soon the Chevy is thrown into reverse and screeches off. But as they accelerate down the road, the Panamanian guards open fire. Bullets shatter the rear window, with one striking Robert in the upper back. The driver speeds to a nearby hospital, but it’s too late. Shortly before arriving in the emergency room, Lieutenant Robert Paz is pronounced dead.

The news of Robert’s killing will soon reach the White House. And for newly elected President, George H.W. Bush, the tragedy will become confirmation that military action against Panama is required, a necessary step in order to bring the regime of Manuel Noriega to an end.

So on December 20th, 1989, President Bush sits behind the desk in the Oval Office, preparing to make an official statement. The 65-year-old President adjusts his glasses, and addresses the television cameras before him…

"BUSH: My fellow citizens, last night I ordered US military forces to Panama. No President takes such action lightly. This morning, I want to tell you what I did and why I did it. For nearly two years, the United States, the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean have worked together to resolve the crisis in Panama. The goals of the United States have been to safeguard the lives of Americans, to defend democracy in Panama, to combat drug trafficking, and to protect the integrity of the Panama Canal Treaty. Many attempts have been made to resolve this crisis through diplomacy and negotiations. All were rejected by the dictator of Panama, General Manuel Noriega, an indicted drug trafficker."

Bush proceeds to explain the various abuses committed by Noriega and the urgent need to intervene with military action in order to save the lives of Americans stationed in Panama. The president’s voice resonates with conviction. But when the cameras switch off, a look of apprehension passes over Bush’s face. He knows the invasion that’s about to take place is no small matter. Soon, Operation Just Cause will be put in motion, with 27,000 American troops dispatched to Panama, in what will be the United States’ first large-scale military intervention since the Vietnam War.

Act Three: Operation Just Cause

It’s the morning of December 20th, 1989, inside a prison in Panama City.

Kurt Muse, an incarcerated American spy, sits slumped against the wall of his cell. Outside, he can hear the sound of machine-gun fire and the dull drone of helicopters. Kurt knows what’s happening: the US invasion to oust Manuel Noriega from power has begun.

Outside the cell door, a prison guard watches the ceiling, listening carefully to the shooting outside. Kurt knows the guard has been ordered to shoot him in the event of a US invasion. Kurt glances furtively at the AK-47 slung across the guard’s chest, and a shiver of dread shoots down the American’s spine.

Kurt was arrested earlier this year for setting up covert anti-Noriega radio stations in Panama. But even behind bars, he has been following the political situation unfolding. Recently, Noriega declared war on the United States and reaffirmed his status as head of state after refusing to acknowledge the results of last year’s election. Kurt knows the Bush administration cannot stand by and let Noriega threaten American interests in Panama. This invasion was inevitable - but now Kurt fears he could become its first victim.

Kurt flinches as a loud explosion reverberates through the prison. A second later, the door to the cell block bursts open, and two American Delta Force elite soldiers storm through. They shoot the guard and then place a small explosive charge on the lock to Kurt’s cell. With a loud pop, the door swings open, and Kurt is rushed out of the prison and bundled into the back of a US Army helicopter.

The mission to rescue Kurt Muse from prison took just six minutes to execute. The US invasion of Panama will be similarly brief and effective. Manuel Noriega will immediately seek refuge in the Vatican City’s embassy in Panama, where he will remain in hiding. Meanwhile, Noriega’s defense forces will be swiftly overpowered by the invading Americans. And within two days, the shooting will stop. 23 American troops will be killed in action, while just over 300 Panamanians will lose their lives.

Then on January 3rd, Noriega will surrender to the US special operations forces, who have surrounded the embassy in which he has taken refuge. The former dictator will be extradited to the US, where he will be prosecuted for drug trafficking, money laundering, and racketeering, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Today, the legacy of the US invasion of Panama is mixed. Many in Panama maintain that the military action was nothing more than America’s attempt to protect its capitalist interests overseas, and a violation of Panama’s status as a sovereign power. Others argue that the invasion was a necessary measure to bring Manuel Noriega’s ruthless and oppressive regime to an end. Whatever the case, in the years since 1989, control of the Panama Canal was handed over to the Panamanians, and relations between the United States and Panama have been characterized by mutual respect and cooperation, an undeniably positive outcome of the military invasion that ousted Manuel Noriega from power on December 20th, 1989.


Next on History Daily. December 21st, 1968. Apollo 8, the first crewed spacecraft to successfully orbit the Moon and return to Earth, launches from the Kennedy Space Center.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.