Skip to main content

Center for Human Rights - Celebrating 15 Years! Students • Partners • Research

The Panama Files: Journalists and Activists Mark 30 Years Since U.S. invasion

December 19, 2019

The UWCHR is excited to be part of the Panama Files project, a multidisciplinary, multinational project to help recover historical memory of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and further human rights objectives.

Since winter quarter of 2019, the UWCHR has been working with the Panamanian journalists’ collective Concolón and a government commission appointed to document—for the first time—the casualties of the invasion, which marks its thirty year anniversary today. Our part in this collaboration involves obtaining and analyzing U.S. government documents that shed light on these concerns, and sharing them with our partners in Panama. Earlier this week, the first tranche of these documents was made available to the public through the Panama Files project.

As Sol Lauria Paz and Eliezer Budasoff commented in a recent article in El Pais, the U.S. invasion has long been an uncomfortable topic in Panama; a series of governments have steered clear of engaging with this history, in part due to a desire to avoid antagonizing the U.S. government by bringing up the invasion. This was also facilitated by the stigmatization of the victims, most of whom were from poor, Afro-Panamanian neighborhoods like El Chorrillo in Panama City, which was flattened by U.S. forces. The number of civilians killed in the invasion remains unknown, with estimates ranging from hundreds to more than a thousand.

The December 20, 1989 invasion was aimed at the removal of dictator Manuel Noriega, a former U.S. ally who had become increasingly ruthless during his time in power. “Operation Just Cause” involved 27,000 troops in an overwhelming display of force, using tactics which presaged future U.S. military operations including the invasions of Iraq. The operation was notable for its emphasis on control of media narratives through the use of embedded reporting and carefully prepared talking points, as revealed in the Panama Files documents. The U.S. military’s extensive documentation of the invasion, and preservation of resulting records, is also noteworthy in the context of ongoing work to uncover archives relating to U.S. military operations and assistance in Central America.

Earlier this month, UWCHR director Angelina Godoy and undergraduate researcher Maya Green travelled to Panama to share documents with partner organizations and participate in Memoria Lab, a workshop led by Concolón to facilitate journalists’ access to and analysis of the U.S. documents. UWCHR will continue this work in 2020, pursuing the declassification of thousands of pages of as-yet-unavailable documents and sharing them with journalists, human rights defenders, and the scholarly community in Panama and beyond. Visit the Panama Files website to view selected documents and read reports, most in Spanish, based on the files.

In addition to the Panama Files archive, journalists, authors, and artists affiliated with Concolón have produced the interactive web publication Duelo, a podcast series, a graphic novel, and other materials regarding the 1989 invasion. The collective’s “#CuentaLaInvasión” social media campaign also invites Panamanian survivors to share their own stories and memories of the invasion.

UWCHR’s contributions to the Panama Files project are based on our commitment to “Access to Information as a Human Right” and our experience researching declassified U.S. government documents in El Salvador in partnership with Salvadoran human rights organizations and survivors’ groups through the “Unfinished Sentences” project.