Professor José Luis Morín Addresses the U.S. Invasion of Panama

Professor José Luis Morín Addresses the U.S. Invasion of Panama

Professor José Luis Morín Addresses the U.S. Invasion of Panama

José Luis Morín, Professor and Chairperson of the Latin American and Latina/o Studies (LLS) Department, has always been at the forefront of human rights issues. As an international human rights attorney, he worked for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund—now Latino Justice—where he advocated for housing discrimination, voting rights, and language rights. So, when he joined the Center for Constitutional Rights in January of 1990, Morín was ready to hit the ground running. But what he didn’t expect was to be boarding a plane to Panama on his first day. “I remember one night getting up, turning on the television and seeing that the United States was invading Panama,” said Morín. “Little did I know that a few weeks later I would actually be in Panama. The Center for Constitutional Rights needed somebody to go with a delegation from the National Lawyers Guild, and I was part of that delegation.” It was during this trip that Morín met Panamanian attorney Gilma Camargo and together they sought to provide the victims of the invasion with the legitimacy they deserved.

Co-sponsored by La Voz and LASO, Morín held a presentation and movie screening of the Oscar Award-winning film The Panama Deception, on March 11, 2019. During his presentation titled Panama: The Quest for Justice, Morín took the audience on a journey starting in 1903 and ending with some hope for the future. 

“I remember one night getting up, turning on the television and seeing that the United States was invading Panama. Little did I know that a few weeks later I would actually be in Panama.”— José Luis Morín

The Beginning
Before going into the details of the invasion, Morín made sure that the audience understood the relationship between Panama and the United States at the time. He began by saying that Panama’s geographic location was convenient for the U.S. because it had a strip of land that easily connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, making it the perfect place for a canal. “By 1903, the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty was created and Colombia is asked to relinquish Panama, and it becomes its own independent country,” he said. “But in that treaty, the United States got control of what's called the Canal Zone. When Theodore Roosevelt, who was President at the time, was asked, ‘in what right under international law did you have to take over this land?’ his response was ‘I took it.’” Using the justification that Latin America was inferior to the U.S., they acquired the land and in 1914 the Panama Canal was complete.

“Building structures were gone, you could see the remains of burnt church buildings and you could smell human remains in the air, rotting in the rubble.” —José Luis Morín

The U.S. had control of the canal until 1977 when the Torrijos-Carter Treaties were created, which gave the Canal Zone back to Panama. However, with the unexpected death of General Omar Efraín Torrijos Herrera, the relationship between Panama and the United States didn’t end there. After General Torrijos’ death, General Manuel Noriega takes over. According to Morín he was the “U.S.’ man in power” and represented another opportunity for the U.S. to control Panama. “General Noriega was on the CIA's payroll while he was engaged in all sorts of drug trafficking and money laundering,” Morín stated. “He was a vehicle for information, and a way of trying to ensure that there was support for the counter insurgency that the U.S. was waging in places like Nicaragua.” But when General Noriega decided to stop cooperating with the U.S., the relationship between the two changed. “All of a sudden we see that Noriega is in the headlines as a big drug lord, even though the U.S. knew he was involved in drug trafficking all along,” Morín said. “The U.S. knew that Panama's banks were doing drug money laundering, but turned a blind eye as long as Noriega was able to cooperate. At the point that that ends, we start hearing in the press that Noriega has got to go. This became the precursor to the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.”

“Our delegation was there quite a number of days after the invasion but it didn’t take us long to find one of the mass graves. It was not difficult to find and it was not difficult to see that there were many civilians who were affected.” —José Luis Morín

The Invasion
Under the premise that they were looking for General Noriega, on December 20, 1989, the United States invaded Panama. “There was an indictment in Florida against General Noriega and during the invasion he is captured and brought to trial in Florida,” said Morín. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison, 17 of which he served in the U.S. He returned to Panama to finish the rest of his sentence, where he died in 2017. But, while the U.S. stated that its goal to invade Panama was solely to capture General Noriega, the destruction that they left behind showed otherwise. Buildings and neighborhoods were destroyed, churches were burned, and the number of civilians indiscriminately targeted, to this day remains unknown. Showing the audience pictures of what he saw, Morín described the feeling of being there. “We could be walking the streets of El Chorrillo, and it was almost out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel,” said Morín. “Building structures were gone, you could see the remains of burnt church buildings and you could smell human remains in the air, rotting in the rubble.”

Professor Morín telling the audience about the US invasion of Panama
Professor Morín telling the audience about the U.S. invasion of Panama

The Aftermath
El Chorillo, a poor neighborhood comprised of mostly people of color in Panama City, was the target of the U.S.’ attack. While it was the location of the Panamanian military’s headquarter, it was still a residential area with various structures and buildings made of wood. With people going about their normal day, the attack came as a surprise and with little anticipation. “There were reports that when the U.S. military was going in, they were targeting that neighborhood without sufficient amount of awareness made to the population. As the military was going in, there were people with bullhorns telling them to evacuate on the spot. And in that, many people died,” said Morín. What he stated was unusual about the invasion was the remains of hospitals and churches. “Based on the laws of war from the Geneva Conventions, civilian targets like churches and hospitals are supposed to be free from military target. When our delegation went to El Chorrillo, we saw structures like churches destroyed. These structures were erased within weeks by bulldozers.”

While the destruction of the invasion remains obvious, to this day the number of civilian causalities is unknown. Citing this as unusual, Morín mentioned that there was no real investigation into seeing how many people were killed. There was no search for civilians, or their remains in the rubble left behind, and this rubble was discarded into the ocean. “Our delegation was there quite a number of days after the invasion but it didn’t take us long to find one of the mass graves. It was not difficult to find and it was not difficult to see that there were many civilians who were affected,” he stated. “To this day, there are no precise numbers. The number of people who have died, the number of people who were injured and the amount of property damage that was done, nobody knows.”

Further highlighting his point, he mentioned the mass grave located in Jardín de Paz, which in English translates to the garden of peace. “The mass grave in Jardín de Paz is larger than a full court basketball court, and had 124 bodies found in it. But there is believed to be more,” he said. “The investigation into the grave was not done in the best fashion. People were very desperate and just wanted to make sure who was buried. Among those buried were men, women, and children.”

The Case
The lack of investigation, the disregard for the civilian targets, and the unknown number of causalities were clear evidence that the U.S. failed to comply with humanitarian laws when invading Panama. Morín clarified that under the United Nations’ Charter, the use of force against the territorial integrity of any state is prohibited. Under the Organization of American States (OAS) charter, a territory or state may not be the object of military occupation nor may other measures of force be taken by another state directly or indirectly. As a member of the UN and OAS, the U.S. had violated both charters. The invasion was condemned as “in violation of international law” because of the loss of life.

First filing a complaint in May of 1990 to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), Morín and Camargo have been working relentlessly to ensure that the victims of the invasion are heard. Over 272 cases have been filed to the commission under, Jose Isabel Salas Galindo and others, v. the United States of America. The main case is based on the lead petitioner, Jose Isabel Salas Galindo, who lived in ‘El edificio de 15 pisos’ (the building of 15 stories). “Jose and his wife, Dionisia Meneses Castrellón de Salas, lived in the 15-story building. As artillery fire was shot into the building, Dionisia was in the kitchen and her body was completely destroyed,” said Morín. “Her remains were so scattered around the kitchen that they had to use shovels to put them in a body bag.” Also in the case were Rosa Victoria Venegas Marín and Ricardo Aurelio Arana Riquelme. Marín was a 69 year old woman who was in an ambulance on the way to Santo Tomás hospital, when U.S. soldiers opened fire. She was shot dead and her body ended up in Jardín de Paz where her family found her remains. With the invasion happening a couple days before the holidays, Riquelme was leaving a toy shop when he was shot. His body was also found in the mass grave.

“We couldn’t begin to talk about reparations unless there was a decision that stated that the U.S. violated the human rights of civilians in Panama. That’s something that we did not have until now.”—José Luis Morín

After 28 years, the IACHR issued their decision about the case. It’s verdict? The United States had violated the fundamental rights of Panamanian civilians. According to Morín, “the U.S. failed to comply with simple principles of humanitarian laws.” These principles include distinction, the U.S. didn’t take the necessary steps to distinguish between combatant and noncombatant. They went through El Chorrillo in an indiscriminate fashion, no precautionary measures were taken to ensure that the safety of civilians would be guaranteed; and proportionality and necessity, the U.S. committed acts that were disproportionate to the actions that should be taken and were unnecessarily aggressive in civilian context. Now, Morín believes that it’s time for the U.S. to take responsibility for what they have done and make steps towards compensations. “We couldn’t begin to talk about reparations unless there was a decision that stated that the U.S. violated the human rights of civilians in Panama. That’s something that we did not have until now.”

After the presentation, we spoke with students to see what they learned from Morín about the U.S. invasion of Panama.

Yemelissa RosarioYemelissa Rosario '19
Latin American & Latina/o Studies Major, Minor in Counseling

“One of the reasons why I'm here is that I want to know why this case took 28 years for a decision. My professor José Luis Morín was the one working on this case, and I want to go deeper into what the international human rights community did about that. I want to get my masters in Human Rights, I want to learn more about international human rights violations, and how we can create more hope for others. This lecture was a great starting point for the work that I hope to do.

Nathalie LianNathalie Lian '20
Political Science Major

“I want to become a lawyer or maybe a political advocate in the future. I'm interested in Latin American studies because our education system hasn't taught us much about it. I didn't know that Noriega was trained by the CIA in the School of the Americas. I also didn't know a lot about the mass graves in Jardín de Paz. I didn't know much about Panama and about the massacre so for me, this was eye opening.”