New Trouble in Panama

Divorcing the Dictator: America's Bungled Affair with Noriega

by Frederick Kempe
Putnam, 469 pp., $24.95

George Bush
George Bush; drawing by David Levine

“CALL TO THE CITIZENRY” was the headline over the box on the front page of La Estrella de Panamá, one of Panama’s five daily newspapers, on March 4. The statement urged Panamanians

to show the necessary wisdom in the face of the recent deeds that have caused alarm throughout society. Certain understandable passions were stirred up immediately after the events of December 20, but the moment has come for ALL Panamanians to put aside their differences and undertake the Reconstruction and Reconciliation that are imperative if the country is truly to set out on the democratic paths of peace and social justice….

Two days earlier, a man in a black Nissan had pulled up in front of a bar named “My Place” and hurled a grenade through its window. According to an eyewitness, the man had shouted “Viva Noriega” as he did so. The bar was a favorite hangout of US soldiers and it was packed on the night of the attack. Sixteen Americans and fourteen Panamanians were wounded; one of the Americans later died.

A few days later, a caller to the local Reuters office said the attack had been carried out by the Movement of December 20. M-20, as it is commonly known, is a shadowy group, presumably made up of former members of Manuel Noriega’s Dignity Battalions. No one knew how many people belonged to the organization or who controlled it, but, one way or another, M-20 had Panama City on edge. Hotels, restaurants, and banks were receiving bomb threats, and on the walls of downtown buildings graffiti were appearing with such slogans as “Assassin Bush” and “Yankee Go Home.”

Visitors to Panama City are now strongly urged by local residents to avoid the downtown area, a grim district of sagging tenements and malodorous streets. One hears warnings like this throughout Latin America, but in Panama they are all the more persuasive since Noriega, during his last months in power, had distributed tens of thousands of AK-47s to his supporters, and many of the weapons are still unaccounted for.

During the invasion, moreover, soldiers loyal to the general opened the nation’s prisons, freeing hundreds of criminals. Most are still at large, and the capital has been suffering from an unprecedented crime wave. Since the invasion the police in this country of 2.3 million people have recorded an average of thirty murders per month—six times the pre-invasion rate. Armed robbers have been breaking into houses by day and holding up expensive restaurants at night. One evening, a friend suggested dinner at a Swiss restaurant, assuring me it would be safe. “It was held up recently, so the robbers won’t be back for a while,” she explained.

Much of the current violence in Panama is connected to drugs. Noriega is gone, but Panama continues to serve as a transshipment point for US-bound cocaine. Traditionally, Colombian traffickers have dominated…

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