Latin America & Caribbean

Panama invasion: The US operation that ousted Noriega

US soldiers sit on top of armoured vehicles in a street of Panama City during Operation Just Cause on 23 December, 1989 Image copyright AFP
Image caption More than 20,000 US troops were deployed to Panama

The invasion came by sea, air and land. Thousands of US troops descended on Panama, seeking to unseat its de facto leader and bring him to Miami to face drug charges.

It was 20 December 1989, and the once close relationship between General Manuel Noriega and the US had deteriorated to the point of no return.

In an address to the nation, then President George H W Bush said he had ordered military forces to Panama to "protect the lives of American citizens" and bring Noriega "to justice".

The announcement came days after Panamanian forces killed an American serviceman. At the time, Noriega was also facing a US indictment for drug-trafficking, as well as claims he had rigged a 1989 election.

Operation Just Cause, as it was dubbed by the US, saw more than 20,000 US troops invade the country and seize control of key military installations.

A US soldier guides a military helicopter during an operation against a military command post loyal to General Manuel Noriega on 23 December, 1989. Image copyright AFP

Officially, 514 Panamanian soldiers and civilians were killed in the invasion but some local groups say the real number is closer to 1,000. Twenty-three US military personnel died.

The invasion turned Panama City into a battleground.

A US soldier searches the bag of a Papal courier during Operation Just Cause, outside the Vatican embassy in Panama City on 28 December, 1989. Image copyright AFP
US soldiers secure a position outside a supermarket in downtown Panama City on 23 December, 1989. Image copyright AFP
US army helicopters patrol Panama City during Operation Just Cause on 29 December, 1989. Image copyright AFP

Supporters of Noriega were arrested during the unrest.

General Noriega's supporters are arrested 25 December 1989. Image copyright AFP

This man, reportedly caught looting during the invasion, was blindfolded and detained by US troops.

American soldiers detain a man caught looting during the invasion of Panama. Image copyright Getty Images

Panamanians opposed to Noriega celebrated the operation to unseat him.

A large number of Panamanians opposed to General Manuel Antonio Noriega wave American and Panamanians flags outside a military post 22 December 1989. Image copyright AFP

Noriega sought refuge in the Vatican's diplomatic mission. Troops stayed outside over the Christmas period and played deafening rock music to get him to leave in an act of psychological warfare. Songs by The Clash, Van Halen and U2 were among those played.

US soldiers man their security position outside the Vatican embassy in Panama City where Panamanian General Manuel Noriega was seeking asylum on 25 December. 1989. Image copyright Getty Images
US troops guard the Vatican embassy in Panama City during Operation Just Cause on 25 December, 1989. Image copyright AFP

Noriega surrendered on 3 January 1990, after spending 11 days at the embassy.

He was then flown by US Drug Enforcement Administration officials to Miami to stand trial, and ultimately found guilty of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering.

Panamanian General Manuel Noriega (C) is brought on board a US military plane 3 January 1990 for a flight to Miami after his arrest. Image copyright Getty Images
A handout made available by US Marshall taken on 04 January 1990 shows former Panamanian General Manuel Antonio Noriega on a jail of United States (reissued 30 May 2017 Image copyright EPA

Noriega spent the rest of his life in custody - first in the US, then France and finally under house arrest in Panama. He died in 2017, aged 83, as a result of complications from an operation to remove a brain tumour.

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