Human Rights in Post-Invasion Panama
Justice Delayed is Justice Denied
Human Rights Watch Report, April 7, 1991
In January 1990, Americas Watch conducted a mission
to Panama and later published a report on violations of the laws of war
by both sides during the short-lived hostilities that followed the December
20, 1989 invasion by the United States.4 A version
of that report, written by Kenneth Anderson and Juan E. Méndez,
was published in a scholarly magazine.5 With respect
to the United States forces, our report concluded that the tactics and
weapons utilized resulted in an inordinate number of civilian victims,
in violation of specific obligations under the Geneva Conventions. In the
devastation created in the neighborhood of El Chorrillo, which lies next
door to what used to be the general headquarters of the Panamanian Defense
Force, American forces violated the rule of proportionality, which mandates
that the risk of harm to impermissible targets be weighed against the military
necessity of the objective pursued.
The attack on El Chorrillo, and a similar attack
in an urban area of Colón, were conducted without prior warning
to civilians, even though the outcome of the attack would not have been
affected by such a warning. Under the Geneva Conventions, attacking forces
are under a permanent duty to minimize harm to civilians. We concluded
that the command of the invasion forces violated that rule.
We have urged an examination of the military operations
in Panama to determine individual and collective responsibilities for these
serious violations of the laws of war. No such inquiry has taken place,
and none is contemplated, as far as we can tell. In mid-1990, the House
Committee on the Armed Forces was preparing to hold hearings on the Panama
invasion, which would have included an examination of this question, but
the Committee's attention was diverted by the events in the Persian Gulf.
Now that the war in the Middle East is over, it is our hope that Congress
will again take up the Panama issue. The success of military efforts should
not postpone a careful and reasoned examination of the way combat is conducted.
Failure to conduct a self-critical analysis may foster repetition of violations
of the laws of war, and promotes the perception that accountability for
such violations is something only the vanquished, not the victors, need
As we said in our May 1990 report, Americas Watch
believes that the way Panamanian civilians died is at least as important
as the issue of the number of those casualties. Unfortunately, insupportable
claims about thousands of civilian casualties have obscured the debate
about how they died. Since the publication of our report, that muddled
controversy has not been clarified, in large measure because neither the
Panamanian government nor the U.S. Department of Defense has provided a
fair and accurate response to those claims. The government of Panama has
callously ignored the need to identify carefully each of the corpses that
were buried in haste in December 1989. After many requests, the Office
of the Prosecutorordered two exhumations. The first one took place in the
Jardín de Paz cemetery in Panama City, on April 28, 1990, and 124
corpses were exhumed. The second one was conducted in Mount Hope cemetery
in Colón on July 28, 1990, and it yielded fifteen unidentified corpses.
These exhumations were done with bulldozers and in disregard for the need
to preserve evidence. Some corpses were identified (presumably with the
aid of records kept at the time of their burial; see our May 1990 report)
and given to the families. The majority of the 139 bodies exhumed, however,
In any event, the two exhumations were conducted
solely for the purpose of finding remains and delivering them to relatives.
Panamanian officials maintain that some of the bodies buried in the common
graves were not actually victims of the invasion, but died in hospitals
from other causes and were mixed together with invasion casualties by hospitals
when their morgues exceeded their capacity. No attempt has been made to
sort out this distinction and, most important, there has been no attempt
(by autopsy or otherwise) to establish with any precision the cause of
death for any of the bodies found in the common graves. The attempt to
establish the cause of death in individual cases would likely have gone
a long way to clarify the circumstances under which so many civilians died.
In addition, these two exhumations account for less
than half of the minimum number of Panamanian deaths admitted by the Endara
government. No further exhumations have been conducted since last July
and, to our knowledge, none is contemplated even though the association
of relatives of victims of the invasion has insisted on renewed efforts
to account for them. By the Panamanian government's own count, issued on
June 26, 1990, 47 remains are still unidentified, and there are 93 unresolved
complaints about missing persons. There is no reasonable explanation why
these outstanding humanitarian questions could not have merited greater
attention in the fifteen months that have elapsed by since the invasion.
The U.S. Southern Command has also failed to honor
fully its obligation to collect the dead, identify them and provide available
information to their next of kin.6 Whatever the
responsibility and role of the Panamanian authorities in this matter, the
U.S. forces have an obligation to do that which emerges from their part,
first as a belligerent and then as an occupying force in the conflict.
American troops did take some part in the gathering and identification
of corpses, but soon gave up that task. For the most part the matter was
placed in the hands of the Medical-Legal Institute of the Panamanian government
(Instituto de Medicina Legal, or IML), an agency that was ill-equipped
to handle such a catastrophe to begin with, and that (like so many other
Panamanian institutions) was further weakened by the invasion.
To this date, the Pentagon has refused to pay any
attention to this matter, except to respond --inadequately -- to controversy
generated by the press. Throughout 1990 there were many complaints in Panama
and in the United States about the number and identity of the casualties,
but the Pentagon remained largely oblivious to them. On September 30, 1990,
"Sixty Minutes," a news and commentary program of CBS News, carried a segment
titled "Victims of Just Cause." The program, anchored by Mike Wallace and
produced by Charles C. Thompson II, charged that the Pentagon had deliberately
covered up the number of civilian casualties in the invasion.7
It also gave credence to claims of much larger figuresthan those to which
the Pentagon has admitted. In this respect, the most significant new detail
contributed by Sixty Minutes was an internal Department of Defense document
which stated: "The payment of individual combat-related claims under a
program similar to the U.S.A. program in Grenada would not be in the best
interest of the Department of Defense of the U.S. because of the potentially
huge number of such claims."8
A flurry of articles and opinion pieces were published
as a result of the Sixty Minutes segment.9 In
November, the Pentagon finally saw fit to answer.10
In general terms, it stood by the figures given in January 1990, as amended
by the IML later in the year. It acknowledged the authenticity of the internal
document, but argued it had no significance to prove a higher number of
casualties, since it was written by a property-claims officer who had no
knowledge or information about Panamanian civilian casualties. In January
1991, a segment of "L.A. Law," a well-known television series, presented
a fictionalized account of the invasion, based on published reports, dramatizing
both the issue of weapons and tactics used and the Army's lack of interest
in clarifying the controversy about civilian casualties.11
During the many months that the Panamanian government
claimed that it lacked the resources to address the need for a better accounting
of the casualties, the United States government offered no tangible assistance
for this purpose. Only in late February 1991, when the issue had all but
died down and the relatives of the missing were no longer pressing for
exhumations, did the American Embassy declare its willingness to contribute
funds or equipment to the effort.12 The United
States Embassy in Panama recently stated that the Bush Administration will
make no further independent effort to investigate or count the number of
casualties, and that it is content to rely instead on whatever figures
are provided by the Panamanian government.13
Even if the internal Department of Defense document does not establish
that the number of casualties is higher than admitted, it does highlight
a separate but related problem: the unwillingness of the United States
to compensate victims of the invasion. Some United States funds have been
given to Panamanian families who were displaced from El Chorrillo, but
more than a year later most of those families are still living in shelters
because construction of replacement units is not yet complete.14
As for the dead and wounded, some American lawyers have filed claims for
compensationon behalf of those Panamanian families, and have even tried
to persuade Congress to institute a compensation program. To date, the
Administration refuses to consider these claims.
Since the flurry of press report that we describe
above, there have been some minor revisions of the casualty figures, even
though the press attention has not resulted in serious new inquiries. Dr.
Humberto Más, the Director of IML, said in mid-1990 that his official
figures were that a total 373 Panamanian citizens had died in the invasion;
he admitted that this is lower than all estimates, including the one offered
by the Pentagon early on. In February of this year, he told Americas Watch
that the total figure was 342 to 346; the reduction was based on information
from hospitals as to the number of bodies buried in the mass graves who
were not actual invasion casualties.15 (It is
important to note, however, that Dr. Más believes that there are
likely to be additional casualties that have not come to the attention
of the authorities.) The IML has identified only 63 as military casualties,
and an insurance company that covers former members of the Panamanian Defense
Force has received only 68 claims.16 It would
seem, therefore, that all others, including 47 unidentified and 93 "missing"
during the invasion, are all civilians. These figures appear to indicate,
therefore, that at least 280 to 305 civilians, and possibly more, died
in Panama, which is very near our estimate of 300, and about 50 percent
higher than the Pentagon originally claimed.17
The figures are necessarily "soft" because some of
the common graves have not been exhumed; the delays in gathering the evidence
resulted in the loss of important information; the evidence from the interior
of the country, some of it anecdotal, has not been gathered adequately
in the capital; and some families have not come forward to identify their
dead. We have no basis to conclude, however, that the actual casualty figures
could be much higher than those reported, as some groups in Panama and
elsewhere have stated.18 The graves that have
not been exhumed are thought to be much smaller than the ones dug up in
April and in July, and claims that other common graves exist have not been
supported by evidence. Similarly unsupported are reports that bodies were
deliberately burned, thrown to the sea or shipped abroad. Even if all of
these things had taken place, the number of bodies affected would have
had to be relatively small, or they would not have avoided detection. At
the same time, if hundreds or thousands of families were still without
any information on the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones, by now
there would be long lists of missing persons, gathered by official and
non-governmental groups. To our knowledge, no such lists exist, except
for the 93 cases that the IML has been unable to solve.19
Though we remain skeptical about larger numbers,
we stress that the updated figures are still troublesome. They reveal that
the "surgical operation" by American forces inflicted a toll in civilian
lives that was at least four-and-a-half times higher than military causalities
in the enemy, and twelve or thirteen times higher than the casualties suffered
by U.S. troops. By themselves these ratios suggest that the rule of proportionality
and the duty to minimize harm to civilians, where doing so would not compromise
a legitimate military objective, were not faithfully observed by they invading
U.S. forces. For us, the controversy over the number of civilian casualties
should not obscure the important debate on the manner in which those people
Now that the Persian Gulf war has ended, the American
government appears bent once again on disregarding the fate of foreigners
-- military and civilian -- who die in wars fought by the United States.
There seems to be no interest in any examination of the bombing raids into
Iraq to see if any of them violated the rules of warfare, and again the
U.S. forces have refused to comply with their obligation to collect and
count the enemy dead. Many years after the end of the Vietnam war, the
United States rightfully continues to press for full accounting for each
of the 2,300 Americans missing in action. No similar zeal is exercised
in making available everything that can be known about those who have died
as a result of American fire in more recent wars.20
In little over a year, the United States has been engaged in two wars,
and in both of them it has refused to comply with important humanitarian
obligations. It is a matter of great concern to us that military triumphalism
appears to be inhibiting the American public from examining this troublesome
trend. Americas Watch shall support efforts to induce the United States
government to take seriously the duties incumbent upon any country when
that country decides to wage war.
4 "The Laws of War and the Conduct of the Panama
Invasion," An Americas Watch Report, May 1990.
5 Juan E. Méndez and Kenneth Anderson,
"The Panama Invasion and the Laws of War," in Terrorism and Political
Violence, Volume 2, Autumn 1990, Number 3, pp. 233-257.
6 Article 15, I Geneva Convention of 1949.
7 CBS News transcript, Volume XXIII, Number
9 See, for example: "What's the Truth on Panama
Casualties?," The Christian Science Monitor, October 16, 1991; "Estimates
of Panamanian Casualties Not a Secret," The Christian Science Monitor
(letters to the editor), November 16, 1991; Kenneth Freed, "Panama Tries
to Bury Rumors of Mass Graves," The Los Angeles Times, October 27,
1991; "Casualties in Panama," (letters to the editor), The Los Angeles
Times, November 12, 1990; Lee Hockstader, "In Panama, Civilian Deaths
Remain an Issue," The Washington Post, October 6, 1990.
10 Cnl. Joseph S. Panvini, USAF, Southern Command
and Michael P. W. Stone, Secretary of the Army, each wrote a letter to
the editor of the Christian Science Monitor, November 16, 1990.
11 L.A. Law, "Rest in Pieces," Script #7L11,
written by Patricia Green and John Robert Bensink (transcript).
12 Interview with Americas Watch, February
13 Interview, cit.
14 During our most recent mission, displaced
Chorrillo residents complained bitterly to Americas Watch about the inadequate
temporary housing where they have lived for fifteen months, and expressed
their dissatisfaction with the extremely small size of the replacement
units under construction in El Chorrillo.
15 Karen Cheney, "How Many Died in Invasion?
Nobody Knows," The Tico Times (San José, Costa Rica), August
10, 1990, p. 9; Americas Watch interview with Dr. Más, February
22, 1991. On January 11, 1990, the Southern Command had released the figures
of 202 civilians and 314 "enemy" dead. By March, 1990, the second of these
figures had been revised down to about 50. See Americas Watch, "The Laws
of War and the Conduct of the Panama Invasion," May 1990, pp.12-13.
16 Lee Hockstader, "In Panama, Civilian Deaths
Remain an Issue," The Washington Post, October 6, 1990.
17 "The Laws of War...," cit., p. 11,
citing a similar estimate by Physicians for Human Rights.
18 See for example, statements by Olga Mejía,
of the Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos de Panamá (CONADEHUPA)
quoted in the article by Karen Cheney in The Tico Times, cit.,
and Comisión de Derechos Humanos de Centro América (CODEHUCA),
"Exhumation Process in Panama. General Findings of CODEHUCA Delegation,"
August 6, 1990.
19 In January 1990, the Endara administration
ordered the newly created Public Force to receive complaints and to create
a record of missing persons. In another example of neglect and lack of
interest, the list thus created was transferred from office to office and
finally abandoned. Most families obtained the information they needed through
the temporary delegation of theInternational Committee of the Red Cross,
or by appealing to the services of non-governmental organizations. The
PF office seems to have left 300 to 500 cases unaccounted for. Peter Eisner,
"Debate Rages Over Invasion Toll, Newsday, December 12, 1990, page
13. It could be that the PF could not account for them because of sheer
incompetence or neglect; if the list represented genuinely disappeared
persons, those names would surely come up in other lists as well.
20 Holly Burkhalter, "Some Bodies Don't Count,"
The Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1991.