The War in Panama

(October 13, through October 28, 1968)
Panaramic View of the Building of the Panama Canal

      The first indication of any difficulty was in mid-afternoon of October 13th 1968. This was election day in the Republic of Panama and it was almost certain that Anufus Aires was going to be reelected president.

     Torrios, General of the LeGuardia of Panama, had threatened he would not permit Aires to become president again. Within twenty four hours Torrios had completely taken control of Panama and Aires had escaped into the Canal Zone. This involved the United States in the internal affairs of The Republic of Panama.

     Now that Aires was in the Canal Zone, Torrios decided he was going to invade the Canal Zone and capture Aires. As a result of this threat all U.S. military personnel were put on alert. Needless to say, Panama had five thousand LaGuardia, equipped with only small arms and the Canal Zone had ten thousand seasoned troops, almost all Vietnam veterans.

     Being in the navy, I was placed on duty as Officer of the Day; fours hours on and four hours off. I was in charge of security of the station. We had about three hundred men, women, and children to protect or evacuate plus the defense of military buildings and equipment. Although the invasion was not expected plans were made to evacuate, if it became necessary.

     To complicate matters, the doctor had put my wife into the hospital. She was expecting our second child. The hospital was located in a small section of the Zone where I had to pass through the Republic of Panama to get to the hospital. Visits to my wife had to be made in a military vehicle and I had to be armed at all times. The hospital personnel had told none of the patients of the conditions or plans to evacuate all of the civilians in the Canal Zone. When I walked in uniform and armed she did not know what to think. She didn't know if she would go or stay behind because she was so close to delivering. I would have to stay but our daughter would have to be evacuated.

     Tension between Panama and the Canal Zone stayed at a high level for four or five days until Aires was transported to the United States where he took over the Panamanian Embassy in Washington, D.C. The United Nations then stepped in and military threats turned to political diplomacy.

     By the time Aires presented his case to the U.N. Torrios was well established in Panama. Small civil disturbances continued in Panama for a short time and we got shot at a few times, but civilians in the Canal Zone did not have to leave. We went off alert status after fifteen days. Things appeared to be returning to normal.

     Aires later gave up the Embassy in Washington, D.C. and went to Costa Rica where he continued to intervene in Panamanian affairs as long as it was profitable to him.

     My wife gave birth to a baby boy on November 16th and things returned to the status quo between the United States and Panama, at least, until 1977 when Torrios decided he wanted the canal for his own use and control.

     Both of our children were born in the Panama Canal Zone and we spent three years there leaving in August, 1969 when I was transfered to Adak Island, Alaska.

     President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian Chief of Government Omar Torrijos signed the Panama Canal Treaty and Neutrality Treaty on September 7, 1977. This agreement relinquishes American control over the canal by the year 2000 and guarantees its neutrality. On May 4, 1904, Panama granted the United States the right to build and operate the canal and control the five miles of land on either side of the water passage in exchange for annual payments. For the history of the Panama Canal, visit the  Library of Congress American Memory  section.

     While never holding the position of President himself, General Omar Torrijos eventually became the de facto leader of Panama. As a military dictator, he was the leading power in the governing military junta and later became an autocratic strong man. Torrijos maintained his position of power until his death in an apparent airplane accident in 1981. The accident has been said to be an American-led assassination.

     After Torrijos's death, several military strong men followed him as Panama's leader. Commander Florencio Flores Aguilar followed Torrijos. Colonel Rubén Darío Paredes followed Aguilar. Eventually, by 1983, power was concentrated in the hands of General Manuel Antonio Noriega.

     Manuel Noriega came up through the ranks after serving in the Chiriquí province and in the city of Puerto Armuelles for a time. He was a former head of Panama's secret police and was an ex-informant of the CIA. But Noriega's implication in drug trafficking by the United States resulted in difficult relations by the end of the 1980s.

The Second War with Panama

     On 20 December 1989, twenty-seven thousand U.S. personnel invaded Panama in order to remove Manuel Noriega. A few hours before the invasion, in a ceremony that took place inside a U.S. military base in the former Panama Canal Zone, Guillermo Endara was sworn in as the new President of Panama. The invasion occurred ten years before the Panama Canal administration was to be turned over to Panamanian authorities, according to the timetable set up by the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. During the fighting, between one thousand and four thousand Panamanians, mostly civilians, were killed.

     Noriega surrendered to the American military shortly after, and was taken to Florida to be formally extradited and charged by U.S. federal authorities on drug and racketeering charges. He became eligible for parole on September 9, 2007, but remained in custody while his lawyers fought an extradition request from France. Critics have pointed out that many of Noriega's former allies remain in power in Panama.