Drugs and justice in Panama

Operation Just Cause aimed to remove Noriega, and ensure that drug revenues went to the “right” recipients, says author.

pounds of cocaine seized

Former US installed president Guillermo Endara enabled Panama to become a province of the Cali drug cartel [EPA]

Prior to his death in 2003, my grandfather – a former intelligence officer in the US military and a veteran of D-Day, Korea, and Vietnam – experienced regular flashbacks to his bellicose career.

These manifested themselves in various ways, such as via his suspicion that the other inhabitants of his assisted-living facility were using their oxygen tanks for communist purposes. In other cases, the ideological foundations of perceived threats were less readily detectable, and he exhibited intermittent concern about potential plots being concocted by the Mexican Air Force.

Another recurring fear was that of being dropped from a helicopter by ex-Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who had in his pre-dictatorial incarnation as director of military intelligence under Omar Torrijos been a frequent visitor to my grandfather, himself the director of intelligence from 1971-76 for the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), then headquartered in the Panama Canal Zone. The visits often took place in the “Tunnel”, the local US nuclear bunker at Ancon Hill, which was equipped with numerous amenities useful in the event of Armageddon, such as air conditioning, a church, and an SUV-sized paper shredder.

Though accused by some of orchestrating Torrijos’ death in a plane crash, Noriega was not known for dropping human beings from aircraft into bodies of water – the practice of which art was generally restricted to US-backed dictators in the Southern Cone and was concurrent with the curriculum of the US-run School of the Americas, also located in the Canal Zone. According to my grandfather, however, Noriega dabbled in the application of such techniques as well, capitalising on the convenient proximity of the Bay of Panama prior to being deposed by the US invasion of 1989.

The justness of Just Cause

At the time of these Tunnel encounters, Noriega was already an established asset of the CIA as well as an established participant in the international drug trade. US government awareness of the latter accolade since at least 1972 only rendered the 1989 invasion, christened “Operation Just Cause”, all the more hypocritical.

Just Cause was mandated by President George H W Bush, ie the same character who, as director of the CIA in 1976, ensured that payments to Noriega continued – despite his acknowledged engagement in unsavoury activities. The name of the operation to remove the suddenly anti-democratic narco-criminal Noriega – whose transparent rigging of elections in 1984 had been applauded by the US administration – was thus approximately as applicable to the situation at hand as the label “Operation Reforestation” would be to a wildfire.

Operation Just Cause was mandated by George H W Bush [GALLO/GETTY]

The justness of the cause was trumpeted by the US press, which in the words of Noam Chomsky “demonised Noriega, turning him into the worst monster since Attila the Hun”. Pointing out that human rights abuses in Honduras in the 1980s paled in comparison with the terroristic policies of the US-backed governments in Guatemala and El Salvador, Chomsky draws attention to the fact that Attila’s appointed heir had nonetheless managed to carry out fewer atrocities than had the CIA’s Honduran protégé, the Battalion 3-16 death squad, “all by itself”.

Mesmerised with firepower’

Equally as “just” as the cause were the means with which Operation Just Cause was implemented. These included bombing the poor neighbourhood of El Chorillo to such an extent that ambulance drivers referred to the area as “Little Hiroshima” and blasting round-the-clock heavy metal music into the Vatican embassy where Noriega had taken refuge, in an attempt to drive him out.

The excessiveness of the operation was highlighted by none other than US General Marc Cisneros, who offered the following reflection in honour of the invasion’s tenth anniversary in 1999:

“I think we could have done it with less troops and less destruction. We made it look like we were battling Goliath … We are mesmerised with firepower. We have all these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff.”

As for persons who were literally dying, the US to this day prefers to round estimates of 3,000 civilian casualties from the operation down to the low hundreds. I had the opportunity to discuss casualty figures earlier this year with an Air Force veteran of Just Cause, whom I met at a birthday party in the Panamanian town of Coronado, where he was dancing with a bottle of rum in each hand. Shouting over the music, the veteran informed me that he had personally upheld US standards of surgical precision bombing during the affair and had called in airstrikes from the ground in order to ensure that only “bad guys” were killed.

When I asked how it was, then, that thousands of civilians had not escaped the application of surgical precision, the man asked if I had ever heard of World War II and shouted that 3,000 was “nothing” in comparison to the number of civilian casualties that had accrued during said conflict. The same number was, however, promptly promoted to the status of “a different thing” when considered in the context of September 11 casualties.

“We have all of these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff.”

US General Marc Cisneros

As for potentially inherent parallels between situations in which civilians perish, a Panamanian man residing in the environs of Rio Hato military base west of Panama City – another area targeted by Just Cause – asked me earnestly whether the Americans could not comprehend that instilling terror in people was by definition terrorism. He described his daughter, three years old in 1989, pleading with him to take her away from the bombs. The feasibility of the project was called into question by the fact that his neighbours’ teenage son was eliminated by a US helicopter as the family fled the area in their car.

Corpses and tamales

As documented in a 1990 report by the media watch group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) on the lack of “separation between press and state” prior to and during the invasion of Panama, the servile US media bleated the sudden existential threat posed to the US public by the Panamanian ruler and then mangled Noriega’s observation that the US had “through constant psychological and military harassment … created a state of war in Panama” into a declaration of war by Noriega on the US.

FAIR notes that US news outlets, while exhibiting a blatant lack of interest in tallying Panamanian civilian casualties, hyped the ludicrous notion this very same month that 80,000 demonstrators in Romania had been massacred in one fell swoop by that country’s army. Official counts subsequently revealed that the number had been closer to 97. Further press manipulation of the magnitude of human suffering in the interest of political expediency occurred with the publication of such findings as that the families of Panamanian corpses were, in fact, overjoyed by the toppling of Noriega.

The US military meanwhile provided its media allies with additional proof of the justness of the cause, such as the discovery of 50 pounds of cocaine in a house regularly visited by Noriega. The weight was subsequently inflated to 110 pounds, before it was revealed that the material in question was in fact a stash of tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Undeterred by the seeming innocence of the apprehended comestibles, US Defence Department spokeswoman Kathy Wood warned that they constituted “a substance they use in voodoo rituals”.

The CIA and drugs

Even if the tamales had really been cocaine, 50 or 110 pounds is an amount far inferior to, say, 5000kg – the approximate weight that was being annually trafficked into Los Angeles in the early 1980s by Nicaraguan exiles, who were then funneling revenues to the CIA-backed Contra forces seeking to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua. As journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair demonstrate in their indispensable book Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, during the period in which the Boland Amendment limited direct US support to the Contras, the drug ring was permitted to function without interruption by the US criminal justice system:

“Indeed, several law enforcement officers have complained publicly that actions targeted against [Nicaraguan drug king Norwin] Meneses were blocked by NSC officers in the Reagan administration and by the CIA.”

Given that the resulting crack cocaine epidemic in South Central LA fuelled gang violence and otherwise wrecked African American communities, it is presumably safe to argue that the security of American citizens is often more imperiled by US wars against alleged international menaces than by said menaces themselves.

As for America’s Contra war ally-turned-menace in Panama, FAIR specifies that “Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking was purportedly heaviest in the early 1980s when his relationship with the US was especially close”. Unfortunately for Noriega, he has not been endowed with the same licence for auto-absolution as his former partner, exemplified in the 1997 New York Times headline: “CIA says it has found no link between itself and crack trade”.

Why Noriega?

As Noam Chomsky outlines in his book What Uncle Sam Really Wants, the need to dispose of Noriega arose when the Panamanian became less subservient to US Contra war demands as well as to area business interests, and his overthrow “restored power to the rich white elite that had been displaced by the [1968] Torrijos coup – just in time to ensure a compliant government for the administrative changeover of the [Panama] Canal [from the US to Panama] on January 1, 1990”.

“Several law enforcement officers have complained publicly that actions targeted against [Nicaraguan drug king Norwin] Meneses were blocked by NSC officers in the Reagan administration and by the CIA.”

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair, authors of “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press”

Of course, Operation Just Cause also served as (another) warning to the entire regional neighbourhood, in case it had not understood from Operation Urgent Fury in 1983 that US presidents were mighty and able warriors and that the US would not hesitate to unleash unnecessary amounts of firepower in order to stifle manifestations of leftism, even in tiny Caribbean island nations that most Americans had never heard of. Two months after Just Cause, the Nicaraguan populace – having spent years at the mercy of sanctions, death squads, mined harbours, and other forms of US-administered oppression, and with the spectre of worse things to come – elected a right-wing government to replace the Sandinistas.

As Chomsky notes, “Washington’s victory in the 1990 election” enabled Nicaragua to “become a significant conduit for drugs to the US market”, just as Operation Urgent Fury enabled Grenada to “become a major centre of drug money laundering” while Operation Just Cause resulted in the following scenario: “The US put the bankers back in power after the invasion. Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking had been trivial compared to theirs.” Cockburn and St Clair confirm in Whiteout:

“The greatest irony of all is that, under the US-installed successor to Noriega, Guillermo Endara, Panama became the province of the Cali cartel, which rushed in after the Medellin cartel was evicted along with Noriega. By the early 1990s, Panama’s role in the Latin American drug trade and its transmission routes to the US had become more crucial than ever.”

In sum, the symbolic sacrifice of Noriega was undertaken not with the objective of punishing criminality but rather of ensuring that lucrative drug revenues went to the proper recipients.

Noriegas international limbo

After spending two decades in prison in Miami on drug trafficking and other charges, Noriega was extradited last year to France, where he was sentenced to seven years in prison for money laundering, despite claiming that his French bank accounts simply contained personal funds and payments from the CIA. According to his lawyers, the transfer to France occurred in violation of the Geneva Conventions, according to which Noriega should have been repatriated rather than re-extradited upon completion of his US jail stint.

In July of this year, then, the French prime minister approved Noriega’s return to Panama, where he faces charges of murder of various opponents, including Dr Hugo Spadafora, whose family is meanwhile petitioning to have Noriega extradited to Italy instead for trial. Following numerous delays, the latest deadline for a French decision on the matter is September 23.

Prospects for real justice in the region – as opposed to a perfunctory judicial circus are naturally dim, given the impossibility of, for example, subjecting the US establishment to multinational extradition tours. The perpetuation of detrimental cycles in Panama has, meanwhile, been assured by the Panamanian government’s recent reaffirmation of the importance of intense collaboration with the US – categorised as “a very special friend” on account of historical and diplomatic ties as well as the pending ratification of a US-Panama free trade agreement – in the staged fight against drug trafficking.

Belen Fernandez is an editor at PULSE Media. Her book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Workwill be released by Verso on November 1, 2011.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.