Operation Just Cause, December 20, 1989
December 29, 2014 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Twenty-five years ago this month, early on the morning of December 20, 1989, President George H.W. Bush launched Operation Just Cause, sending tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft into Panama to execute a warrant of arrest against its leader, Manuel Noriega, on charges of drug trafficking. Those troops quickly secured all important strategic installations, including the main airport in Panama City, various military bases, and ports. Noriega went into hiding before surrendering on January 3rd and was then officially extradited to the United States to stand trial. Soon after, most of the U.S. invaders withdrew from the country.

War and Peace in Panama, Frontline's 1991 documentary on Operation Just Cause and its aftermath.

Council on Foreign Relations: Panama Twenty-Five Years Later

Yahoo! News: Panama's Noriega in prison 25 years post-invasion

Fox News Latino: 25 years after Panama invasion, number killed remains unknown
posted by Rustic Etruscan (47 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Y'know, even as a kid who totally wanted to see some fuck-yeah-American-justice visited on an awful drug trafficking dictator (what? I was, like, 15!), I thought it was pretty low to name the whole thing Just 'Cause.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:48 PM on December 29, 2014 [23 favorites]

Just 'cuz the CIA took over the trade.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:53 PM on December 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

Here's the US Army's official account: Operation Just Cause; the Incursion into Panama.
posted by wuwei at 8:55 PM on December 29, 2014

Wow, I hadn't realized Frontline has literally not changed its style at all in like 30 years, voiceover guy included. Don't change what ain't broke I guess.
posted by BungaDunga at 8:55 PM on December 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

From the Yahoo News link:

Noriega, a one-time CIA asset who controlled Panama from 1983 to 1989, became an embarrassment for the U.S. after he began working with Colombia's Medellin drug cartel.

Huh. Plus ça change, etc.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 8:58 PM on December 29, 2014 [16 favorites]

War Crimes are for little people.
posted by Auden at 9:04 PM on December 29, 2014 [14 favorites]

What a ludicrous, tinpot operation this all was, all in the service of ousting a tinpot dictator, and it truly set the stage for all the misbegotten military adventurism of the next 25 years (and beyond). Even the Council on Foreign Relations, while heaping praise on the ultimate effects of the operation, concedes that it was a "lopsided confrontation."
posted by blucevalo at 9:09 PM on December 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

I remember this so vividly but can't figure out why it seems like so much longer ago than everything else I remember that is also turning 25 recently.

My working theory is that there have been so many more "operations" since then.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:18 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

The University of Panama's seismograph marked 442 major explosions in the first 12 hours of the invasion, about one major bomb blast every two minutes. Fires engulfed the mostly wooden homes, destroying about 4,000 residences. Some residents began to call El Chorrillo "Guernica" or "little Hiroshima." Shortly after hostilities ended, bulldozers excavated mass graves and shoveled in the bodies. "Buried like dogs," said the mother of one of the civilian dead.

Never believe them when they say "surgical strike".
posted by arcticseal at 9:22 PM on December 29, 2014 [34 favorites]

The fundamental rule: The codename is picked to avoid the actual reason. That might give away actual tactical information.

So, Operation Just Cause was anything but.
posted by eriko at 9:25 PM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I read it as just (be)cause.
posted by Radiophonic Oddity at 9:29 PM on December 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

I was little -- maybe 8? -- but I remember thinking it was hilarious that the marines played "I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)" at him in his compound. (Or I guess maybe not his compound -- wherever he was hiding at the time.)

That must have been the only part I saw on TV (my parents must have only turned it on for the non-violent bits), I literally had no idea there were bombs until just now. I guess I thought the marines just flew in, played rock music at him, and he surrendered. I remember asking my mom why he didn't like that song (I liked it! It was one of probably six I knew that weren't kiddie songs!) and she told me something about how he didn't like rock 'n' roll. I also knew he was a "drug lord" and drugs were bad (mmmkay?), because this was during the height of the "Just Say No" indoctrination era.

(I also remember this was not that long after the Iran-Contra Affair hearings, when my mother CONSISTENTLY interrupted my cartoons to turn on the WORLD'S MOST BORING MAN, Oliver North, doing NEWS THINGS in the MIDDLE OF THE AFTERNOON. I had a pretty profound hatred of the US government's foreign policy just because of its cartoon-interrupting habits.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:30 PM on December 29, 2014 [20 favorites]

The codename is picked to avoid the actual reason.

Well, sometimes they sneak the actual reason in there.
posted by tonycpsu at 9:31 PM on December 29, 2014 [16 favorites]

"What has amazed me over the years is the number of authors and researchers that who have written and asked for the music played during the siege. I receive about two such requests a year. I have no idea why that is so interesting, but must point out that there was no special selection of particularly awful mind-numbing music selected by the psywarriors to quickly drive Noriega into the open. In fact, just regular popular music of the times was played; whatever the troops had in their personal possession or whatever was requested or played by the local radio stations.

The military radio station has stated that prior to the 26th they had played various requests from the troops; the Marines asked for “Welcome to the Jungle,” the canine handlers requested Billy Idol’s “Flesh for Fantasy,” and the Special Forces wanted the Door’s “Strange Days.” Other calls were for patriotic songs like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” and hard rock songs like “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by the Twisted Sister...."

This was so interesting, and hilarious. "Flesh for Fantasy" from the canine units. My gut hurts.
posted by honey-barbara at 9:32 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

This picture, in the US print media (I want to say in Newsweek...) played an important role in marshaling American public opinion
posted by Auden at 9:38 PM on December 29, 2014

I remember watching it play out on t.v. at a friend's house while I was in college. Then a few years later I got to talk to soldiers who'd been involved: My battalion CO, whose family was stationed there with him when the invasion happened; my drill sergeant, who watched a pair of privates under his leadership blow themselves up trying to clear a shack with the wrong grenades; and my battalion XO, serving with a Ranger bat at the time, who shat himself riding down in his chute when tracer rounds punched through his canopy. Oh, and a guy who'd been airborne infantry but had switched branches to signal by the time I knew him, who claimed to have bodily ejected the guy in front of him when he froze in the door during the drop.

Putting the stories from all three of them together, it sounded like a confusing clusterfuck. The thing that was interesting to me, I guess, was that I remembered the invasion and the footage of the soldiers, and they all looked sort of implacable and lantern-jawed to philosophy major me. Then I met and served with all these people who'd been there — two jumped into combat, one saw two guys shred themselves with a grenade, all fired shots in anger at other human beings—and they just didn't look like those lantern-jawed dudes to me. None of them ever do, now. A few years in the barracks, watching guys shove toilet paper up their asses then set it on fire and run around in a drunken frenzy sort of chips away at that impression.
posted by mph at 9:43 PM on December 29, 2014 [26 favorites]

I remember experiencing this as a "the world is batshit insane" moment.

Starting a war to prosecute the leader of another sovereign nation for drug dealing.
posted by edheil at 9:50 PM on December 29, 2014

Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.
- Michael Ledeen, according to Jonah Goldberg.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:54 PM on December 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Act one: Who put the pistol in epistolary?:
The story of a ten-year-old girl from small town Michigan named Sarah York, and how she became pen pals with a man who was considered an enemy of the United States, a dictator, a drug trafficker, and a murderer...
posted by notyou at 10:28 PM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

The drug stuff, sure. But don't forget the bank.
posted by notyou at 10:46 PM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Par for the course in our little region over here which has never bothered anyone.
posted by Nevin at 11:24 PM on December 29, 2014

a ludicrous, tinpot operation this all was, all in the service of ousting a tinpot dictator

Not at all! It was in the service of establishing "narco-terrorism" as the moral equivalent of Communism, in order to retain an antagonist suitable to the needs of the State and its Security.
posted by thelonius at 12:36 AM on December 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Fun fact - the title is a typo. The original name for the op was Operation Just Because.
posted by lon_star at 1:09 AM on December 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Or “Operation Just Cause Chaos”, as I heard it referred to.
posted by acb at 3:24 AM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

blucevalo, you may want to read up on the previous 200 years of American history.
posted by leopard at 3:44 AM on December 30, 2014

So, this is the precedent for using SWAT teams to serve warrants?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:58 AM on December 30, 2014

The drug stuff, sure. But don't forget the bank.

Oh man there should be a front page post on BCCI one day. The Bank that took over 20 years to liquidate.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 4:39 AM on December 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yeah, high school senior me watching this unfold just a couple years after Iran Contra convinced me that the US demonstrably wants to be the only pusher on the corner.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 4:52 AM on December 30, 2014

“It’s all quite predictable, as study after study shows,” Noam Chomsky writes. “A brutal tyrant crosses the line from admirable friend to ‘villain’ and ‘scum’ when he commits the crime of independence.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:18 AM on December 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

The Proclamation Of A Lone Superpower Above The Law and The Panama Deception belong here.

Agreed. The Counterpunch piece in particular is good, and I considered putting it in the OP, but I didn't want to be accused of stacking the deck, considering that the main link is a TomDispatch piece published in The Nation. In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have weighed that consideration as heavily as I did. In any case, the English-speaking right-wing press doesn't seem to have reported on this anniversary much, if at all, nor have I seen it respond to the English-speaking left-wing press's reporting.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:46 AM on December 30, 2014

watching guys shove toilet paper up their asses then set it on fire and run around in a drunken frenzy

This is pretty close to how I view American foreign policy.
posted by srboisvert at 6:25 AM on December 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

As a 25-year-old obsessed with politics, 1989 has a weird significance for me. I really hope that I can learn to acknowledge events like this without falling prey to unwarranted misery or apathy, without being tempted to let myself off the hook. I don't want to live in a world where I choose to look away from these events, or their impact on people's lives. I can't help but assume that Noreiga could have been apprehended without military action on this scale, that people didn't have go out like that.

posted by IShouldBeStudyingRightNow at 6:40 AM on December 30, 2014

My wife is Panamanian and was in the capital on the day this was launched. At midnight an announcement came on the television (only in English) that said the United States was invading. She said this came as a complete surprise.

She did not like Noriega. She says he took his political enemies in a helicopter and dropped them into the ocean. She says she and most Panamanians hated the invasion because of its heavy-handedness, its destruction, its incompetence and its random killing. She thought the United States was merely using Panama as a military game.

That night she and a friend went on top of the building where she lived and saw exactly like you imagine an invasion to be: bombs, helicopters, gunfire. The people were terrified, not knowing where to go.

The next morning there was massive looting by the locals. The police had withdrawn and people broke into stores taking supplies, refrigerators and televisions. She describes the lines of people with stolen goods to be like a line of ants.

There were no local buses. She did find a taxi which she crammed into with as many as it could hold. They went to the central bus depot. Buses were working from there and she took one to visit family outside of the city.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:41 AM on December 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

"NSA" Dope Calypso by Allen Ginsberg. It's new verses and a new chorus he sings to the same music as CIA Dope Calypso.
Now Richard Secord and Oliver North
Hated Sandinistas whatever they were worth
They peddled for the Contras to ease their pain
They couln't sell Congress so the Contras sold cocaine

They discovered Noriega only yesterday
Nancy Reagan & the CIA

Now coke and grass were exchanged for guns
On a border airfield that John Hull runs
Or used to run till his Costa Rican bust
As a CIA spy trading Contra coke dust

They discovered Noriega only yesterday
Nancy Reagan & the CIA

Ramin Milina Rodriguez of Medellin Cartel
Laundered their dollars & he did it very well
Hundreds of millions through U.S. banks
Till he got busted and sang in the tank

It was buried in the papers only yesterday
When Bush was Drug Czar U.S.A

Milian told Congress $3,000,000 coke bucks
Went to Felix Rodriguez, CIA muck-a-muck
To give to the Contras only Hush Hush Hush
Except for Donald Gregg & his boss George Bush

Buried in the papers only yesterday
With Bush Vice President U.S.A.

Rodriguez met Bush in his office many times
They didn't talk business, they drank lemon & limes
Or maybe they drank coffee or they smoked a cigarette
But cocaine traffic they remembered to forget

Buried in the papers only yesterday
And Bush got in the White House of the U.S.A.

Now when Bush was director of the CIA
Panama traffic in coke was gay
You never used to hear George Bush holler
When Noriega laundered lots of cocaine dollar

Bush paid Noriega, used to work together
They sat on a couch & talked about the weather

Then Noriega doublecrossed his Company pal
With a treaty taking back our Panama Canal
So when he got into the big White House
Bush said Noriega was a cocaine louse

The Cold War ended, East Europe found hope,
The U.S. got hooked in a war on dope

Glasnost came, East Europe got free
So Bush sent his army to Panama City
Bush's guns in Panama did their worst
Like coke fiends fighting on St. Marks & First
I found a good recording of it online a long time ago. God, I wish I could find it again.
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:05 AM on December 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

I guess I thought the marines just flew in, played rock music at him, and he surrendered.

That's pretty well what the news media said back then, as I recall.
posted by ovvl at 8:12 AM on December 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

blucevalo, you may want to read up on the previous 200 years of American history.

Okay, so maybe I exaggerated about "truly setting the stage." I'm aware of and "read up on" the previous 200 years of American history, but thanks for the condescending note. My point that this was a ludicrous escapade still has merit, I think. And I think it's fair to say that Poppy Bush thinking it was okay to invade Panama on as flimsy a pretext as this set the stage for Sonny Boy using an even flimsier pretext in Iraq.
posted by blucevalo at 8:56 AM on December 30, 2014

Hey I think This American Life did a piece on Noriega once. You guys should check it out.
posted by graventy at 8:58 AM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

"We got a thousand points of light
For the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler,
Machine gun hand"

Neil Young's summation of the Bush I presidency nailed it.
posted by e1c at 9:55 AM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh man, "a thousand points of light". Made all the GOP's later sneering about "community organizers" all the more ludicrous to me.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 10:12 AM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was in the 9th grade, living downtown, when my Mom woke me up and said "they're invading! they're invading!" Apparently, it was already on the news. I remember the looting that started occurring almost immediately, and I remember my friend and I wanting to walk a couple of blocks up from my house, to by stolen TVs and VCRs at dirt cheap prices. But, my Mom was having NONE OF THAT, and told me and my friend there would be no stolen merchandise in our house...and we were mad because we just wanted to get a VCR for 50 bucks!

I also remember some people protecting their stores with guns, frantically putting up plywood to protect glass windows...looters steered clear of those people.

last thing: I remember that the presidential candidate that Noriega had been supporting at the time lived about 3-4 blocks down the street from me. Somehow, word got out that U.S. forces were down by his house, rounding up the candidate and his crew. Next thing we know, we were standing on our third floor balcony, and some US soldiers came down the street...followed by a FUCKING TANK, then some arrested folks (obviously the candidate and crew), then more soldiers, and another FUCKING TANK...right down my residential neighborhood street.

Blew my 14 year old mind. I'll never forget seeing those tanks on my street.
posted by KillaSeal at 12:04 PM on December 30, 2014 [20 favorites]

I'd look forward to the day when it's Oliver North's turn to answer for all this, if I thought the will was there. A part of me still refuses to believe he's a free man.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 1:52 PM on December 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ruben Blades wrote a song about it: 20 de Diciembre.
posted by gteffertz at 2:44 PM on December 30, 2014

I was 12 years old and by a small accident of timing, my family was scheduled to take a cruise through the Panama Canal that New Year's. Obviously that didn't happen.
posted by dry white toast at 5:46 PM on December 30, 2014

Noriega was a "one time" asset? Blood in, blood out mothafucker. We will bring war upon your nation, this is some gangsta shit right here. The CIA is the top gang and the NSA is like the OG crew calling the shots from behind closed doors / prison cells
posted by aydeejones at 10:37 AM on January 7, 2015

In all seriousness I was 9 years old and yeah it was pretty much reported as "we went in and played American music and arrested this random evil mastermind you just heard of today." As a nine year old I had the presence of mind to suspect it was all bullshit from Vietnam to Iran Contra. I even remember my dad telling me we *had* to stop communism.

Four years later I did my homework and yeah. How the fuck did Oliver North get off with a radio show and freedom? Same as G. Gordon Liddy I guess. This country is run by thugs and scum and it's increasingly hard to discern what's great about it beyond my cozy white privileged yet depressing lifestyle.
posted by aydeejones at 11:41 AM on January 7, 2015

(Vietnam is where my memories of the concept of "foreign policy" begin, it was still a huge deal in the 80s and people were still convincing themselves it was a worthy goal. Just to pre-empt any 200 years of history comments. I can thank disinfo.com circa 1998? for helping me process that shit.)
posted by aydeejones at 11:44 AM on January 7, 2015

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