CENTRAL AMERICAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION (CODEHUCA)
PANAMA DELEGATION REPORT
To PEACENET readers, from CODEHUCA (Central American Human Rights Commission)
A.P. 189 Paseo Estudiantes, San Jose, Costa Rica.
Tel - 24 59 70; FAX - 34 29 35.
The US invasion of Panama has been presented by the US government and the international media as a surgical strike that toppled the Manuel Noriega regime with minimal human and material cost. This report, prepared by a joint delegation of the Central American Human Rights Commission (CODEHUCA) and the Panamanian Human Rights Commission (CONADEHUPA), is based on testimonies and interviews collected on a recent fact-finding visit to Panama. It reveals that the reality of the Panamanian invasion, and the conditions under which the Panamanians now live, is fundamentally different from the image presented to the international community.
CODEHUCA sent a 5-member delegation to Panama for two primary reasons:
1 - CODEHUCA is opposed to any and all use of military forces to solve political differences. CODEHUCA stands by the principles established by the Charters of the United Nations and the Organization of American States; and
2 - To respond to reports of massive human suffering caused by the US military invasion of Panama on December 20th and the continuing US occupation of that country up to the present time.
CODEHUCA's team--working in conjunction with CONADEHUPA--visited and photographed areas hardest-hit by the US military forces and conducted interviews with diverse sectors of the Panamanian population including the newly-appointed Attorney General of Panama, the Lawyer's Association (Colegio de Abogados), opposition parties, union leaders, lawyers, doctors, and humanitarian organizations.
CODEHUCA, as with any other investigative body, was unable to establish precise quantitative data regarding the human and material costs of the invasion, primarily due to the extent of US efforts to conceal these facts. But the evidence gathered by the delegation provides information that has not been published in the international press nor acknowledged by the US government. It clearly indicates that the official death toll presented by the US military forces is substantially lower than the actual number of Panamanians (particularly civilians) killed in the invasion.
The function of this report is to give voice to a Panamanian perspective of the US intervention which has been suppressed and ignored through media censorship and government crackdowns on persons and groups in opposition to the US invasion/occupation. The first-hand accounts quoted in this study are excerpts from 20 hours of taped testimonies gathered by the delegation during January 20th-30th, 1990. In the interests of space, and to avoid replication, a small sampling of testimonies are referred to in the text of the report. CODEHUCA has transcribed the majority of these testimonies in Spanish and English and photocopies may be obtained through CODEHUCA. Please also feel free to make copies of and distribute this document.
The major findings of this report are:
1. The US Army used highly sophisticated weapons--some for the first time in combat--against unarmed civilian populations. In many cases no distinction was made between civilian and military targets.
2. The human costs of the invasion are substantially higher than the official US figures. Conservative estimates indicate that civilian fatalities were at least 10 times greater than the US figure of 220.
3. The actual death toll has been obscured through US military practices including:
A) - Incineration of corpses prior to identificaton;
B) - Burial of remains in common graves prior to identification; and
C) - US military control of administrative offices of hospitals and morgues, permitting the removal of all registries to US military bases.
4. The US has not respected fundamental legal and human rights in their military occupation of Panama. Violations of these rights have occurred on a massive scale through illegal detentions of citizens, unconstitutional property searches, illegal lay-offs of public and private employees, and--until recently--tight control of the Panamanian media.
5. A thorough, well-planned propaganda campaign has been implemented by US authorities to appease the Panamanian population and to deny the brutality and extensive human and material costs of the invasion.
"THE BULLETS HAD NO NAMES AND WERE NOT SHOT DIRECTLY AT A MILITARY CUARTEL...RATHER, THEY WERE FOR THE POPULATION. THIS IS WHAT I CAN TELL YOU ABOUT THE 20TH OF DECEMBER."
---a resident of San Miguelito, (Doc. #24).
INVASION AS MASSACRE:
US OVERKILL AND MILITARY ATTACKS AGAINST CIVILIANS
On December 20, 1990--in the first fourteen hours of the US invasion of Panama--the University of Panama Seismothese aerial raids were carried out by F-117 "Stealth" bombers (never before used in actual combat) which dropped 2000-lb. bombs.
Based on various testimonies reported to this delegation, US air and ground troops killed at least 2000 to 3000 Panamanian people. This may be a conservative estimate. Most of these deaths could have been prevented had the US troops taken appropriate measures to ensure the lives of civilians and had obeyed the international legal norms of warfare. But the US military is guilty of more than negligence: there is evidence of several cases in which the US forces specifically targeted their attacks on civilian populations.
CODEHUCA noted that the most devastated civilian neighborhoods--such as Chorrillos and San Miguelito--were extremely poor, densely-populated areas. Half of the neighborhood of Chorrillos--which had a pre-invasion population of approximately 25,000--was literally destroyed by US troops and civilian residents were victims of direct attacks:
"...at 12:44 a.m., my husband and I went to the window of our 14th floor apartment and saw five US helicopters...shooting and rocketing our building....We went to the living room because there were no windows facing the side from which they were shooting at us. This did not help--the bullets came in as if we were in the open air...So we decided to go out into the passageway, because there are no windows there, the walls are very thick. All night long we listened to the sounds of the strafing and the bombardments. Mortars exploded in the 5th and 9th floors...At about 3:00 a.m., we heard a US soldier speaking over a loud-speaker telling us that we had 10 minutes to evacuate the building. Although there was an elevator, the electricity had been cut off in the first minutes of the invasion, so we did not have time to gather some belongings and walk down 14 flights of stairs. After that, the bombardments continued with even more force...Through the entire night we continued to feel the building shake due to the bombs..." (Doc. #4).
"...There is another building just beside our building, that is still under construction. There is no one living there. It was totally unharmed in the attack. Even though it is right beside our building, there is not a bullet or mortar projectile mark on it. This indicates that the US troops were unquestionably firing on our building, knowing it was full of civilians." (Doc. #4).
Testimonies received by CODEHUCA cited numerous examples of US attacks on unarmed vehicles and civilians, including an instance in which a US tank destroyed a public bus, killing 26 passengers.
Disproportionate use of military force and indiscriminate and intentional attacks against civilians are in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions which establishes that "the rights of fighting parties to choose their methods and means of carrying out the war are not unlimited." This basic principle prohibits an excessive use of weaponry which causes superfluous harm and obligates fighting parties to make and respect the distinction between civilians and military targets under any circumstance.
US violations of these fundamental laws of war were committed not only through the use of highly sophisticated weaponry but also in the "gratuitous" victimization of civilians and destruction of civilian property:
"The US troops burst into the apartment using a type of pole to knock down the door...They found all of us sleeping there, in our beds and on the floor...They kept us in the street in front of the house until sunrise. Our youngest children had nothing on at all. My wife and I were in simple bed clothes. Then, in front of our eyes, they burned the building to the ground--all fifteen apartments....All of our belonging were destroyed. They had not let anyone go back into the building to collect personal property. We have been here in the refuge ever since then" (Doc.#6).
"...we saw from our window a group of approximately 18 soldiers coming down the street, and saw them entering each house. We saw the residents coming out, followed by the soldiers, and then we saw the houses, one by one, go up in smoke. The US soldiers were burning the houses. We saw people trapped in their apartments, because they lived on the second floors of these wooden houses. The stairs to the ground floor were already on fire so many of them had to jump from the windows. I saw one boy return to look for an elderly person, perhaps a grandparent. He threw a mattress from the second floor and then jumped with this old person" (Doc. #7).
Official US and Panamanian government sources estimate the material damage caused by the invasion at close to two billion dollars. While much of the damage was the effect of the first-time use of high-technology weaponry with tremendous destructive capacity, the US troops' burning of civilian homes and entire city blocks (see footnote) clearly contributed to the staggering material losses suffered by Panamanian citizens--especially by the poor. Quantitative dollar figures cannot adequately describe the overwhelming personal impact of the destruction. Many of those living in the "slum" areas near the military cuartels literally have nothing left, and the refuge centers for displaced people have been severely inadequate in meeting the existing needs. As one woman from Chorrillos told the CODEHUCA delegation: "Eight years of marriage and everything lost" (Doc.4).
INHUMANE TREATMENT OF WOUNDED
According to several testimonies, there is evidence that the treatment of wounded people was inadequate and inhumane. The Red Cross reported that their efforts to evacuate wounded survivors to hospitals were, in some cases, seriously impeded by US troops:
"They (paramedics) returned to the hospital and said that they were going to wait until the morning because US troops had shot at the ambulance. It was clearly marked with a red cross on every side. It could not be mistaken. They said they were lucky to escape with their own lives" (Doc.#12).
In the neighborhood of Chorrillos, the delegation witnessed a completely leveled residential area the size of ten city blocks. Not a single structure was left standing.
CODEHUCA has received testimony from several doctors regarding illegal and inhumane treatment of wounded Panamanians. According to a doctor in the San Tomas Hospital who was staffing the Emergency Room on December 20th:
"The dead generally showed bullet wounds in the head; some of them had contusions in the head. The people who took refuge in the hospital said that when someone was wounded, the soldiers finished them off with their rifle butts" (Doc. #1).
Other doctors reported that:
"On December 22, we received an ultimatum from the US Army through the Red Cross. If we did not let them enter the Hospital, it would be bombed. They were allowed to enter; they searched the hospital for arms. They found none in the hospital...In the morgue, there were 60 bodies that had been stabbed with bayonets of the soldiers to make sure that they were dead" (Doc. #1).
"On the 23rd, I was moved to a concentration camp in Emperador to attend to the wounded detained people. There were 30 people with gunshot wounds and burns that required hospitalization....in conversation with the US Army paramedics, I was told that there was a common grave where they had buried a trailer-full of bodies. Witnesses have verified that there are three such refrigerated trailers in the city. The paramedics indicated that each of the trailers could hold 400 bodies. Similarly, they mentioned the Chorrillo cremations, indicating that the act was justified based on the advanced state of decomposition of the bodies" (Doc. #1).
In the area of Chorrillos, where casualties were the highest, the Red Cross was denied access for the first three days. In the same neighborhood, residents witnessed survivors being "disposed of" along with corpses:
"On the way from our bombed-out apartment to the refuge center...we saw a pile of bodies, both dead and wounded, piled all together on top of each other. We thought that they were all dead until we saw some of them moving. We saw some of them with their heads smashed open. We saw others that were totally crushed and I think that tanks had passed right over these people because they were so crushed." (Doc. #7)."
The prevention of evacuation and treatment of wounded--civilian or military--during wartime is in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions of August, 1949, which establishes free access of the International Red Cross and other recognized humanitarian relief organizations to wounded individuals.
COMMON GRAVES AND ILLEGAL DISPOSAL OF CADAVERS
After the initial attacks, US troops were seen burning cadavers and burying remains in numerous common graves without prior attempts at identification or notification of next of kin. As a result of these practices, many Panamanian citizens are considered missing or "disappeared"; their family members have no information regarding their location or whether they are even alive.
The Red Cross has confirmed that the US Army carried out "sanitation" activities in which they used flame throwers to burn hundreds of bodies:
"On December 22, I went to the Central Headquarters with a group of people who had seen the American soldiers take some bodies from among the debris. Near the Capilla, one of the soldiers burned a body. For this, they used flamethrowers that consisted of an apparatus they carried on their backs that looks like what the tanks use and a hose that looked like part of a ventilator. The bodies were put on top of a piece of zinc. When the fire went out, the body was like a piece of coal; it was a compact mass that was later put in a green bag which had three adjustable straps. After the body was burned, it was put together with fourteen others that had already been cremated.
"One thing that caught my attention was the reaction of a woman who shouted that they could not do this because the families could not identify the bodies. They did not stop because no one was around to recognize the victims. They didn't photograph them for later identification" (Doc. #1).
CODEHUCA received many testimonies from residents of conflict areas which provide similar descriptions of common graves filled with corpses:
"I had to go on two occasions to these hospital morgues to recognize a dead family member. There were dead persons piled one on top of the other....All the spaces were full, and bodies were lying on the floor, inside and outside the door. Every day, truckloads were taking bodies to the common graves. In the morning and in the afternoon, I saw US troops driving US trucks taking 50 bodies--each trip--to be buried....Some of the bodies were taken in rustic boxes, and others in plastic bags....For example, they took them to the Juan Diaz Cemetary. It was US troops that had the job of digging the common graves and the particular graves....From the hospital, we went behind the trucks. They entered the cemetary. They did not allow us to enter. From the entrance, we were able to see..." (Doc. 24).
"I saw where US troops with green bags were entering houses looking for the remains of bodies. They were doing this with their mouths covered with a type of doctor's mask...They would then put them in the bags and bury them in holes (mass graves) that they had dug." (Doc. 4).
Another witness reported finding two Panamanian soldiers covered with lime in a hole in the ground: "They still had their identification ("dog-tags"). Their families could not have known that they were there" (Doc.#11). As one doctor indicated: "It should be that the only persons put in common graves are unidentified bodies...I think they are doing this, in part, so that the real number of dead will not be known" (Doc.#12).
US ADMINISTRATIVE CONTROL
"The US has set up shadow administrations that control more or less what the Panamanian hospital administration does" (Doc.#10).
The US Southern Command executes ultimate military, civil, and legal authority in Panama without respect for the Panamanian constitution or administrative systems. When asked when the local government would take control of US actions in Panama, the newly-appointed Attorney General of Panama, Rogelio Cruz, responded:
"Three weeks ago, I was in a meeting when an official from Chepa called, saying that Chepa had been invaded by North American troops. They had entered the Municipal Building and decided to sleep there....So then I told him, the official in Chepa, that if he had as powerful army as the USA, then he should oust the US troops at once. What could I do? We are an invaded country. It is a reality" (Doc. 15).
Addressing the issue of consistent constitutional violations on the part of the US occupying forces, Cruz explained the US-controlled chain of command:
"Recently, with respect to the denunciations, someone was in my office to tell me there was a house with a large amount of weapons and money. So I said I am going to order a search. When I called F.Q., of the new Public Forces, to do the raid, he told me that it was necessary to have the approval of Major Manning of the US military...I did not know that the Attorney General of Panama needed the approval of a US major to do a raid" (Doc. 15).
"COVER-UP" OF ACTUAL DEATH TOLL
Shortly after the invasion, US military personnel took control of the hospital administrations' accounting records of fatalities and wounded and have prevented public access to these figures. Mounting evidence regarding the existence of a "cover-up" regarding the actual death toll is recognized not only by knowledgeable sectors of the Panamanian population but by former US officials as well.
Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark reported a "conspiracy of silence" regarding the fatalities resulting from the invasion and former US Ambassador to Panama Ambler Moss stated that his "gut instinct is that there is an awful lot of parties around there that have an interest in covering up numbers" (New York Times, 1/10/90, p. 9). Catholic priest Diego Caffley working in Panama reported to the ANSA press agency that the US invasion of Panama caused 3000 deaths and that the greatest obstacle to finding out how many persons died is the Southern Command of the US Army (La Republica, Costa Rica, 11/01/90, p. 28a). The PIQof which was published in the Panamanian daily La Estrella (29/01/90, p. 16a) which poses the question: "Why are there so many obstacles to finding out how many people died?"
The official US government figures regarding the number of deaths has fluctuated from 200 to 400 to "undetermined." But as one Panamanian stated:
"The figure 200 is ridiculous when one looks at the capacity of the hospital morgues. Here they fall into their own lies. On the 23rd and 24th, they were urging people by television to come to the hospitals and identify family members because the morgues....were all full to overflowing" (Doc. 24).
One of the several Panama City area hospitals, alone, has a 200-body capacity, and various humanitarian organizations have made estimates regarding the actual Panamanian death toll ranging from 600 to 5,000. The Catholic and Episcopal Churches have estimated 3,000 Panamanian fatalities, a figure that they believe is conservative.
REPRESSION OF OPPOSITION;ABUSE OF LEGAL RIGHTS
I. - ILLEGAL DETENTIONS
CODEHUCA is extremely concerned regarding the continuing practice of illegal detentions of Panamanian citizens on the part of the US occupying forces. According to the US military's own sources, almost 6,000 Panamanians--military and civilian--have been detained and interrogated in US military bases. At least hundreds of civilians have been arbitarily and unconstitutionally captured on the basis of anonymous denunciations; many of these arrests are spurred merely by antipathy or personal grudges within the Panamanian population but others are clearly attempts to crack down on opposition protest:
"...union leaders have been detained in order to pressure their support for the puppet government....The political leaders continue to receive threats that they will be detained" (Doc.1).
Substantial numbers of non-combatants are being held as prisoners-of-war without charges brought against them. Furthermore, in the last weeks of January--one month after the invasion--families were still not allowed to visit their detained relatives. While visitation is now being permitted, family members must battle almost-insurmountable bureaucracy to make contact with the detainees.
II. - ILLEGAL SEARCHES AND SEIZURES
US soldiers continue to commit illegal searches and confiscation/destruction of private property--in many cases work-related items such as files, archives, and computers--on a massive scale. While widespread, these unconstitutional activities reveal a pattern: Unions, churches, government offices, opposition political parties, human rights groups, and embassies of countries (such as Nicaragua, Cuba, Libya, and Peru) with strained relations with the US have been specifically targeted. The homes of private citizens considered in opposition to the invasion or nationalistic have also been illegally searched. As in the case of the illegal detentions, anonymous denunciations--often hinting at the presence of guns or drugs on the property--are often the primary basis [for] seizure.
"All of the residences and offices of the political sectors that oppose the invasion have been searched and much of them have been destroyed and their valuables stolen" (Doc. 1).
As one housewife reported:
"The troops arrived. They said that they had received an anonymous call, informing them that there were guns or drugs in my house. Thirty of them, well-armed, surrounded my house, and six came in...and looked everywhere. I was there with young children. Of course they found nothing...."(Doc 24).
III. - UNAUTHORIZED/ILLEGAL DISMISSALS
To date, more than 10,OOO Panamanians have been dismissed from both the private and public work force. The initial pretext for the firings had been individuals' links to the Noriega government or to the Dignity Batallions. The dismissals based on membership in the Dignity Batallions is illegal in that the Panamanian Constitution establishes the rights of citizens to defend their country from foreign invasion. Besides using unconstitutional justifications for the lay-offs of workers, the current authorities in Panama have extended their actions beyond their (albeit illegal) estabished criteria of firing members of the Dignity Batallions. As one public employee explained: "There are institutions that had, for example, 50 Dignity Batallion members, but they dismissed as many as 150."
The post-invasion authorities have also ignored existing labor laws in their practice of "suspending indefinitely without pay" thousands of workers who now have no legal or administrative recourse:
"Besides all of the other rights that are included in these laws regarding employment, there is no precedent for a policy of "indefinite leave of absence without salary." Furthermore, these dismissal letters were retroactive--that is, these letters were delivered on the 15th of January and ordered dismissals from the first of January. In other words, people had worked 15 days without pay. That is illegal, besides the fact that the person signing the letters has no public authority but is a simple custodian who signed the letter. The process was undertaken irresponsibly....because when we search for remedies for what has occurred, there are no authorities that will aid us. The man who did the firings disappeared and has not returned..." (Doc. 25).
IV. - PROPAGANDA/MEDIA CONTROL
The information and images released to the international community regarding the Panamanian invasion and continuing occupation are in accordance with a comprehensive, well-planned public relations and propaganda campaign executed by the US authorities.
CODEHUCA does not deny that many Panamanians welcomed the removal of Noriega. But the economic, political, and social context in which the Panamanian people were living must also be considered, along with the fact that it is clear that the "overjoyed" and "grateful" Panamanian people portrayed in media reports were unaware of the actual number of people killed by the US military. Until the middle of February, the US exercised full control and censorship over Panamanian media, providing no alternative information other than official government figures. Nor was there any medium for the expression of dissenting or critical perspectives regarding the invasion.
As part of an appeasement campaign, the US military has distributed merchandise carrying the "Just Cause" slogan and US soldiers give candy, chocolate, and 25-cent pieces to Panamanian children. It is worth noting that "Just Cause" t-shirts and other paraphernalia were distributed within the first 24 hours of the invasion, indicating that the propaganda campaign to win the "hearts and minds" of the Panamanians was planned well in advance.Furthermore, US troops permitted mass looting after dismantling the Panamanian security forces previously responsible for maintaining order in Panama; there is support for the view that the US authorities made a policy decision before the invasion to encourage looting as a means of releasing Panamanian tension and aggression and winning over the population with the availability of previously-inaccessible material goods.
"THE MORAL DAMAGE AND SOCIAL TRAUMA OF THE FAMILIES OF DEAD, DISAPPEARED AND IMPRISONED PANAMANIANS--ALONG WITH THE LOSS OF OUR SOVEREIGNTY--WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN" (Doc. #1).
US "mop-up" efforts have been quick and effective in trying to erase the visual evidence of the killing and destruction. But while public relations work, cover-up of the actual death toll, and suppression of protest can present a tidy image, the reality is that thousands of Panamananians have lost family members, homes, and livelihoods.
The Organization of American States and Amnesty International have documented the human rights abuses that the Noriega regime committed in the past two to three years and Noriega has been legitimately denounced for his role in the repression of opposition parties in the May 1989 elections.
However, the US massacre committed in the invasion of Panama has caused an unprecedented level of deaths, suffering, and human rights abuses in Panama. To further illustrate the position that the invasion had little or nothing to do with the removal of Noriega and the restoration of `democracy' CODEHUCA notes that the human rights violations in Panama under Noriega--although unacceptably high--were mild compared with the records of US-supported regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador.
It is critical to emphasize that even Panamanians who despised Noriega and desired his removal from power condemn the US intervention that violated their national sovereignty and killed their fellow Panamanians. Yes, they wanted a change. But at what cost?
As one Panamanian put it:
"How incredibly shameless to argue that they invaded us for our freedom and democracy! Why don't they go to free the blacks of South Africa...or the dispossessed of their own country? The most powerful military, the nation that is the most `democratic and free' of the West, needed to indisciminately kill more than 3,000 Panamanians, destroy whatever was in their path, to capture one man--Noriega, who was always in arm's reach?" (Doc #14).
It is critical that the questions raised by this and other such reports be investigated thoroughly by the US Congress/Senate and international organizations such as the United Nations. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has accepted a request to make a fact-finding visit to Panama; CODEHUCA encourages that this investigation be conducted as soon as possible to avoid further cover-up and loss of evidence due to US "mop-up" efforts.
The current US policy analysis and public sentiment regard the invasion as "successful" in that it "got Noriega." This conclusion is based on misrepresentation of the actual death toll and other human and material costs.
Honest estimates must be recognized, publicized, and utilized in policy analysis to avoid the faulty legitimization of this type of intervention as a continued policy for the US or other nations.
Honest estimates must also be used to provide appropriate indemnification--for both ethical and political reasons--to those Panamananians who have suffered losses. When asked about the issue of the much-awaited US financial renumeration, one Panamanian woman whose daughter was killed by US troops responded: "They cannot bring my daughter back to life with their money." It is true that the losses inflicted by the US upon the Panamanian people can never be repaired, yet the least the US government can do is to provide the money to help Panamanian people rebuild the lives, homes, and businesses which have been destroyed by US intervention. Furthermore, if international support is not forth-coming (including indemnification from the US) there will undoubtedly be significant social and political backlash on the part of the Panamanian people waiting desperately for these funds.
It is absolutely unrealistic and unacceptable--by legal, moral, and political standards--to believe that the US government can create a true "democracy" in Panama through the installation of a government brought about by a brutal invasion of a sovereign nation. The cover-up activities, the abuse of fundamental liberties, and the suppression of opposition groups on the part of the US military are aggravating an already-volatile situation.
CODEHUCA believes that the future direction of Panama depends on immediate action by the Panamanian government to encourage an open, national dialogue for Panamanians to address fundamental economic, political, and military issues. If the interests of the poor and the working-class (the hardest hit sectors) are excluded from the nation-building process, it will be impossible for Panama to develop internal stability and peace. The US has illegitimately "justified" the massacre as an intervention to "build democracy." The international community must condemn this in every respect. Moreover, the international community must pressure the US--and other nations and international financial institutions--to help rebuild Panama. Only through international cooperation will democracy really be built in Panama.
CODEHUCA again urges the international community to pressure the United States and Panamanian governments to deliver an honest report regarding the invasion of Panama and to act responsibly in this critical time of national reconstruction.
codehucacarnet.alerts11:41 am Mar 6, 1990
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