PANAMA CITY, Panama – Thursday’s anniversary of the 1989 U.S. invasion was declared a day of “national mourning” by Panama’s legislature, and it established a commission to determine how many people were killed when U.S. troops stormed the capital.
The measure was unanimously approved as Panama commemorated the 18th anniversary of the day thousands of troops landed to arrest dictator Manuel Noriega on drug charges.
“This is a recognition of those who fell on Dec. 20 as a result of the cruel and unjust invasion by the most powerful army in the world,” said Rep. Cesar Pardo, of the governing Democratic Revolutionary Party, which holds a majority in the legislature.
The measure, which requires the approval of President Martin Torrijos, also calls for a monument to honor the dead, most likely in the El Chorrillo neighborhood that was destroyed by bombs during the attack.
U.S. officials downplayed the issue.
“We prefer to look to the future,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Gavin Sundwall. “We are very satisfied to have a friend and partner like Panama, a nation that has managed to develop a mature democracy.”
Polls at the time indicated that Panamanians overwhelmingly welcomed the invasion that rid them of Noriega, but the feeling it was a blow to national pride has gradually increased since then.
The government estimates that 472 to 500 Panamanians were killed, but human rights organizations say more than 1,000 died. About 25,000 U.S. troops participated in the invasion, 23 of whom were killed.
Thursday’s measure establishes a “truth and reconciliation” commission with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and attorney general’s office to determine the number of civilian and military deaths.
It also will try to list the names of those killed from October 1968, when military rule began in Panama under the current president’s father, to December 1989, when Noriega was ousted.
Noriega became president after his mentor, Gen. Omar Torrijos, died in a 1981 plane crash.
Noriega, a former collaborator of the CIA, was sentenced to 30 years on U.S. drug trafficking charges in 1992. His sentence, reduced for good behavior, ended on Sept. 9, but he remains in custody until the resolution of an extradition request by France, which wants to try him on money-laundering charges.