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What is Operation Just Cause?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated May 17, 2024
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Operation Just Cause was a military action undertaken by the United States against Panama in December 1989. Lasting about two months, the conflict involved the invasion of the Latin American country by roughly 28,000 US troops commanded by General Maxwell Thurman. The overall mission was to depose Panamanian dictator General Manuel Noriega. The battle is one of the most recognized conflicts of 1989.

The US retained a strong relationship with Panama since the Spanish-American War, financing the construction of the Panama Canal, the major transit and shipping facility linking the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. President Jimmy Carter signed the Torrijos-Carter Treaties on 7 September 1977, which promised to hand over ownership of the canal to the Panamanians in 2000. Due to the fact that the shipping lane is one of the most important routes in the world, maintaining strong relations with the country was very important.

In 1983, General Noriega seized control of the country after a military coup. He had previously worked closely with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) against communist revolutionaries in Central America and the Drug Enforcement Administration to stop drug shipments. Noriega himself was also linked to numerous drug trafficking organizations accused of transporting narcotics into the US. President Ronald Reagan attempted to negotiate with the dictator, alleging that Noriega was leveraging his position to work both sides of the drug war against each other. Reagan wanted Noriega to peacefully step down in exchange for avoiding prosecution.

After an attempted coup against the dictator occurred in 1989, allegations of election fraud brought international attention to Noriega's reign. Much of the population of Panama was living in fear from the leader's police forces. In addition, the US ambassador cited an incident in which an American serviceman was killed and three more were kidnapped and tortured. According to the US, this was grounds to warrant intervention by the military in Operation Just Cause through the United Nations Security Council. This was followed by a series of additional incidents in which more US service members were harassed, beaten and killed all across Panama.

Operation Just Cause was launched on 20 December 1989, making it the largest combat operation since the Vietnam War. In a combined effort by all branches of the military, the overwhelming force exerted by the US was quick and decisive. The Panamanian Defense Force was essentially dismantled within days. Noriega himself took refuge in a Vatican mission. US officials negotiated his surrender, which occurred on 3 January 1990.

While Operation Just Cause was short-lived, there were still casualties on both sides. The US suffered 23 dead and 325 wounded. Panamanian forces sustained 205 deaths and 1,236 captured. Reports estimate civilian deaths between 200 and 4,000 depending on the sources. Two journalists, one American and one Spanish, were also killed.

In the aftermath of the conflict, there were many rumors regarding the connections between Noriega and President George H.W. Bush, the former head of the CIA. In the movie The Panama Deception, a 1992 documentary, asserts that Operation Just Cause was undertaken in an effort to cancel the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. Other concerns have also been raised regarding footage of mass graves, the use of experimental weapons by the US and the estimated 20,000 refugees created by the conflict.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon166133 — On Apr 07, 2011

After many days of trawling the internet to find anything but self-congratulatory websites run by the military, for the military, I came across this site. The report of the operation is factual and, to my mind, less biased than that on Wikipedia. The only other site that I have come across that appears to have any concern for the losing side, contains the report by Physicians for Human Rights.

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