All Around the World


State Crime, The Media, and the Ivasion of Panama

By: Christina Jacqueline Johns and P. Ward Johnson

Christina Jacqueline Johns was Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology at Eastern Michigan University who had three books published about the socioeconomic issues in Latin America in the late 1900s before her retirement.

Invasion of Panama: Military Malpractice, Media Manipulation

By: Sangjoon Kim

On December 20th, 1989, the U.S. was secretly mobilizing 27,684 troops for a midnight attack, while Panamanians were getting ready for the Christmas holiday. The objective of this attack was to capture Manuel Noriega and take out military targets while minimizing the loss of civilian lives and collateral damage. Despite being considered an astounding military success, Noriega fled from Panama, seeking refuge in Vatican city, and excessive force was used upon the civilians of Panama during the operation, which led to reported deaths of over 2,000 civilians. This military operation was called the “Just Cause” of the Invasion in Panama. The goal behind this invasion was to force the president of Panama from power, who, at the time was Manuel Noriega. Noriega had previously served as a paid informant for the Central Intelligence Agency for more than twenty years and was the governing figure of the puppet government designated by the United States for Panama. However, Noriega had taken actions that were considered threats against U.S. interests, creating tension between the U.S. government and himself. In 1988, a U.S. invasion on Panama was planned with the justification that democracies were in jeopardy in Latin America due to the “War on Drugs”, which became affiliated with Manuel Noriega1. In December 16, 1989, President Bush ordered the commencing of Operation Just Cause.

During the Reagan and Bush administrations, the War on Drugs had been used as a legitimization for the U.S. to become involved in Latin American affairs with claims that federal intervention was necessary to preserve democracies, otherwise, they would be in jeopardy because the dangers of “narco-terrorism” would still be at large. Thus, the intentions of the U.S. government were presented as morally righteous, therefore the U.S. intervened and Latin American “democracies” were protected and designated as such by the United States. However, “The fact of the matter is that those countries in Latin America considered by the Reagan and Bush administrations to be democracies are, in reality, merely client states that went along (by choice or because they have little alternative) with administration policies in the region.”2 It was never the administration’s goal to preserve real democracies in Latin America to begin with. They were more concerned “with the establishment of capitalism worldwide and with the unimpeded control of resources and markets.”3 With that established, the Bush administration sought to create “a new world order designed by the rich to consolidate their power at the expense of the poor…. Maintaining the skewed concentration of wealth within the United States while continuing to transfer wealth from the third-world poor to the developed-country rich are key objectives of the new world order.”4 The War on Drugs then became a part of a rhetoric justifying the expansion of the war against the poor.

As previously stated, Manuel Noriega was an invaluable asset to the CIA, working as a paid informant regarding Latin American affairs. Frederick Kempe, in his book about Noriega, Divorcing the Dictator, states that “Noriega received his first payment from U.S. intelligence in 1958 or 1959. Noriega, then, remained on U.S. intelligence payrolls for at least twenty years. The question, then, becomes why after years of support for Noriega did the U.S. administration choose to implement economic sanctions and depose him.”5 The administration used the stance for restoring democracy in Panama, protecting American lives, and to seize the use of Panama as a drug conduit and haven for money launderers as a smokescreen to install a government that his administration would keep for the control of the Panama Canal and their bases, which Noriega refused to comply with. As the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the U.S. Invasion of Panama noted, “during the five years preceding the invasion of Panama, Noriega refused to comply with a number of U.S. demands. One of these demands [the one thought to be most important by the ICIIP] was the renegotiation of the 1977 Panama Canal treaties to allow U.S. bases a continued presence in Panama.”6 In addition, Noriega’s affiliations with other foreign governments made it difficult for him to be trusted; “Noriega, however, was playing all sides. He was supplying materials and intelligence to the Contras, to the Sandinistas, and to Cuba at the same time…. U.S. military sources have stated that Noriega was on the payroll of at least ten intelligence agencies around the world.”8 Noriega’s involvement with many agencies made him increasingly powerful and difficult to deal with. Noriega was no longer the compliant head of a client state that he used to be. Furthermore, Noriega had become less effective in controlling popular organizations in Panama. The possibility that Noriega’s oppressive behavior could generate opposition to his government and a popular revolution, as had taken place in Nicaragua, was one that the U.S. was not willing to take since a truly democratic government in Panama would be troublesome for U.S. interests. After fleeing from the Panamanian invasion, Noriega sought refuge in Vatican city but surrendered on January 3, 1990 when he was captured and then flown to the United States.

After years of dealings with Noriega, which went on during the administrations of at least four U.S. presidents, the Bush administration needed to discredit Noriega. One of the most ludicrous legitimations used by George Bush was that an invasion of Panama was necessary to protect American lives. Yet, “Four American churchwomen were murdered in 1980 by national guardsmen in El Salvador, but there was no discussion of a U.S. invasion.”9

Noriega was charged in 1988 along with fifteen other people with conspiracy to smuggle drugs and with taking more than $4.6 million to protect the Medellin drug trafficking organization. However, the clear intent of the indictment was to discredit and not an effort to stop drug trafficking. “A senior DEA agent, an expert on the Colombian Medellin cartel, was quoted in the Washington post as saying, ’Compared to other traffickers or even other corrupt officials in Mexico and Pakistan, Noriega was pretty ordinary-- you’re talking at most a couple tons of cocaine. Some guys move that every month.’”10 In addition, the corporate press had been suspiciously uncritical about both the justification and the consequences of the extraordinary misuse of military power. “Assertions made by the Bush administration about the situation in Panama were repeated by the corporate press as fact. Coverage of the events leading up to the invasion was dominated by quotes from or interviews with official sources.”11 The corporate press was in complete cooperation with the Bush administration.

Three weeks after the Panamanian invasion, the Bush administration still had not released a civilian body count. The administration offered poor excuses for refusing to release a figure for the civilian body count. United States journalists, however, witnessed the retrieval and burying of bodies, which led to the conclusion that authorities were looking to obscure the death toll. “The report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Invasion of Panama noted that the doctors in one hospital who treated many of the casualties were fired, arrested, or driven into hiding after the invasion.”12 There were estimates that at least 2,000 Panamanians died in the invasion, but representatives from the United States gave a lower estimate of at least 300 civilians dead. “The failure by the corporate media to concentrate on civilian or Panamanian casualties allowed the administration and the military to maintain the fiction that the Panamanians were overjoyed with and largely undamaged by the invasion.”13 Also, militarily, the Panamanian Invasion was considered such a success that there was celebration of the glory of the invasion across the nation. “During this jingoistic jig, opposition to the invasion was ridiculed and dismissed and made to appear unpatriotic.”14 Meanwhile, Latin America was extremely critical about the invasion of Panama and made it clear that they opposed American intervention in Latin America. After the ousting of Noriega, the United States wanted Noriega to be replaced by a “government of ‘sober-minded politicians’ and ‘senior military officers’ who saw as principal aims ‘the safeguarding of U.S. strategic interests.’”15 Endara and his partners fit the bill and became the new puppets under the United States government. Endara was part of the few (lawyers and bankers) in Panama that were better off after the invasion. While the business class represented by Endara saw prosperity, the working class of Panama were protesting as a result of their eroding rights. In addition, under the Endara puppet government, drug money returned to Panama.

In Christina Jacqueline Johns and P. Ward Johnson’s State Crime, The Media, and the Invasion of Panama, the authors analyze the invasion of Panama, exploring the ways in which the War on Drugs has been used as a legitimizing for the integration of U.S. state power into Latin America, in addition to the aftermath of the invasion and its relation to the distortion of civilian casualty information, the celebration of the war, the puppet Endara government, and the increased drug trafficking through Panama. They particularly discuss the role of media coverage, including the discrediting of Noriega and the immediate adoption by the corporate media of the name Operation Just Cause, in legitimating the invasion. The following excerpt from the last chapter of the book encapsulates Johns and Johnson’s perspective on the lies told by the corporate media and the administrations directly related to the Invasion of Panama and the potential for perpetuated media manipulation. “It has come to the point where all that government officials have to absolve themselves of guilt for everything including treason is to plead that they are basically imbeciles who know nothing about what goes on around them. It should be remembered that parents are not allowed to plead ignorance of their children’s criminal behavior, especially if that behavior involves drugs. The US population, however, seems completely ready to accept explanations from congresspersons and presidents that they would laugh at if they came out of the mouths of their sons or daughters.”16

Christina Jacqueline Johns is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology at Eastern Michigan University. She has worked for the Criminal Conspiracies Division of the Justice Department and taught seminars in Colombia and Puerto Rico. Johns wrote three books: The Origins of Violence in Mexican Society, State Crime, the Media, and the Invasion of Panama, and Power, Ideology and the War on Drugs: Nothing Succeeds Like Failure - Criminology & Crime Control Policy, all of which address the socioeconomic issues in Latin America, especially the War on Drugs. Published on December 28, 1993, Christina Jacqueline Johns and P. Ward Johnson wrote their book, State Crime, The Media, and the Invasion of Panama, primarily in response to the lack of publicity of the state crimes that the U.S. government committed in relation to the Panamanian invasion. When a documentary called The Panama Deception was released in 1992, it created a general feeling of distrust and disgust towards the Bush administration and the conservative Right for their lies to the public. This feeling of distrust became epitomized in both Johns and Johnson’s book and The Panama Deception.

In Ronald C. Kramer’s review of the book, State Crime, The Media, and the Invasion of Panama and the award-winning documentary, directed by Barbara Trent, The Panama Deception, Kramer states that both, book and film, cover the same general topics in relation to the invasion of Panama in addition to presenting some critical insights about political crimes. Johns and Johnson used “the concept of ‘rollback’ to analyze U.S. foreign policy actions in the postwar period. Rollback is “the determination of U.S. policy elites to return to a precommunist world, with the final goals of eliminating communism in the USSR and establishing free-market capitalism worldwide.”17 Kramer maintained a positive review of both the book and documentary, shown through his lengthy analysis of the subjects that the book and documentary reference.

State Crime, The Media, and the Invasion of Panama by Christina Jacqueline Johns and P. Ward Johnson is about a dispute between the United States and one of its former puppets, Manuel Noriega, in the “democratic” Panamanian government for the control over Panama. The dispute for control escalates into a bloody invasion in Panama to oust the no longer compliant client of the Panamanian puppet government. In order to justify the invasion without exposing the covert dealings with Noriega to the public, the U.S. government labeled Noriega as a narco-terroristic dictator that must be dealt with in order to preserve democracy. This drew the image of a morally righteous United States for the public, which the corporate press worked in complete collaboration with the presidential administration to manipulate. This book is about the measures that the Reagan and Bush administrations took, such as sacrificing their integrity for their devious goals. Johns and Johnson kept a biased tone throughout the book that shows clear distaste for the lies that were spread by the Reagan and Bush administrations. However, State Crime, The Media, and the Invasion of Panama was meant to expose the state crimes that the Reagan and Bush administrations committed, which, to prove the validity of a claim so controversial, would require numerous sources and evidence to support it. Thus, it is reliable for forming one’s own opinion based on the evidence in the book, despite being presented in a pessimistic tone.

Ever since Reagan was elected into office, the United States turned away from the 1960’s liberalism and toward conservatism. In their book, Christina Jacqueline Johns and P. Ward Johnson show how the rise of conservatism came about through international aggression and manipulation of the American public. During the Reagan and Bush administrations, the nation was under the illusion that their beloved country was free from repression because the leader of their nation never ceased to call themselves a democracy and promote its installation of a “democratic” government in third-world countries, which was achieved through media manipulation. Thus, the book does not support the assessment that the United States, as a whole, turned away from liberalism because, in their minds, Americans supporting U.S. intervention in other countries supported the spread of democratic governments. The puppet governments in Latin America in which the presidential administrations supported and called a “democracy”, were anything but one. The purpose of this manipulation was part of a vision to implement a New World Order that seeked to make capitalism the only choice available for an economic system in the world. This was to be accomplished by pursuing “U.S. elite interests…. with all the military might of the country [which] will be presented as a holy crusade. Failures to comply with U.S. demands will be redefined as a declaration of war.”18

To conclude, the contempt with which both the Reagan and Bush administrations have regarded as international law, is evident from the invasion of Panama and the manipulation of the American public. ”Law, both domestic and international, for these two administrations has been treated as an obstacle to be gotten around or ignored when it is against the interests of the U.S. elite.”19 Ever since the exposure of the state crimes committed by the conservative Reagan and Bush administrations, to say that conservatism begets lies would not sound too far-fetched to the ears of the American populace today.

[1] Christina Johns and P. Johnson, State Crime, The Media, and the Invasion of Panama (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1994), 1.
[2] Johns and P. Johnson, 4.
[3] Johns and P. Johnson, 7.
[4] Johns and P. Johnson, 6.
[5] Johns and P. Johnson, 14.
[6] Johns and P. Johnson, 18.
[7] Johns and P. Johnson, 18.
[8] Johns and P. Johnson, 18.
[9] Johns and P. Johnson, 51.
[10] Johns and P. Johnson, 53.
[11] Johns and P. Johnson, 63.
[12] Johns and P. Johnson, 87.
[13] Johns and P. Johnson, 88.
[14 ] Johns and P. Johnson, 90.
[15] Johns and P. Johnson, 97.
[16] Johns and P. Johnson, 131.
[17] Kramer, Ronald. EXPLORING STATE CRIMINALITY: THE INVASION OF PANAMA. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 1995. 1.
[18] Johns and P. Johnson, 126.
[19] Johns and P. Johnson, 124.