On December 20, 1989, President Bush ordered a military assault on Panama using aircraft, artillery, helicopter gunships and experimenting with new weapons, including the Stealth bomber. The attack was a surprise assault targeting civilian and non-combatant government structures. In the El Chorillo district of Panama City alone, hundreds of civilians were killed and between 15,000 and 30,000 made homeless. U.S. soldiers buried dead Panamanians in mass graves, often without identification. The head of state, Manuel Noriega, who was systematically demonized by the U.S. government and press, ultimately surrendered to U.S. forces and was brought to Miami, Florida, on extra-territorial U.S. criminal charges.
Noriega had seized control of his country back in 1983 when he became head of the National Guard. From this position of power, he was able to build up the military and manipulate elections so that the winning presidents would be his puppet leaders.
Corruption was widespread during Noriega’s rule, and he was able to use his power to imprison and sometimes kill any who opposed him. In 1987 a former officer of the Panamanian defense force publicly accused Noriega of cooperating with Colombian drug producers.
The US responded by imposing strict sanctions that took an extensive toll on the country. On December 15, 1989, the Panamanian legislature declared Noriega president and that the US and Panama were in a state of war. Following the shooting of a U.S. Marine, President George Bush ordered Operation Just Cause, an invasion consisting of over 25,000 soldiers. The mission was controversial due to the resulting loss of hundreds of Panamanian lives and the subsequent damage to Panama City and El Chorillo.
The military was able to quickly achieve its goals as Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990. He was taken to the US, tried, convicted and jailed on drug trafficking charges and is currently serving his 40-year sentence in Miami.