Residents woke just after midnight to the dull sound of the Apache helicopter gunships swooping low across the city. Without warning bombs suddenly began ripping into buildings-factories, offices and residential districts.
The poorest areas bore the brunt of the assault. Whole tower blocks rocked by the 'precision' bombs suddenly collapsed down on themselves, burying their inhabitants. Soon US troops were on the ground, shooting anyone who got in their way. Within 24 hours at least 2,500 people were dead.
This is not a description of Afghanistan, but of what happened in the Central American country of Panama 12 years ago this month. On 20 December 1989 US president George Bush, father of George W Bush, ordered the slaughter in Panama.
The United Nations estimates that 2,500 civilians died, and the Panamanian National Human Rights Commission puts the figure at over 4,000 civilians dead. Bush sent his forces into Panama as the attention of the world was gripped by events in Romania that Christmas, where an uprising that would topple the dictator Ceausescu was in full flow.
The US military took complete control of the Panamanian media, hospitals and morgues. They destroyed the radio stations. The US refused to allow the international press into the area. A glimpse of the savagery of the US assault on Panama only began to emerge afterwards.
'I saw [US] tanks run over and crush our dead. I saw a great number of civilian cars with whole families inside-women, kids and drivers torn to pieces and crushed,' said one eyewitness. At one US roadblock a human rights investigation reported troops attacking a group of people in a car on 23 December:
'All five passengers were forced out of the car and told to lie face down on the ground. They were riddled with bullets. They were simply going to visit family members.' US soldiers hid bodies, and some were dumped down garbage chutes. Human rights groups and the victims' families later uncovered mass graves.
Television footage of one grave being opened revealed body after body. A spokesperson for a Panamanian human rights group described the victims: 'Young people 15, 16 and 18 years old. People in their 60s and 70s. People shot in the back of the head and those with their hands tied behind their backs.'
The man who organised all this for George Bush was called Wayne Downing, then head of US special operations in Panama. Downing now works for George W Bush as the US's Director of Counter-Terrorism.
Monsters made in the US
The pretext for the US invasion of Panama was to remove its ruler, General Noriega. George Bush labelled Noriega a drug runner and a dictator. Bush knew better than anyone. Noriega had been on the payroll of the US CIA, when it had been run by... George Bush.
Noriega pocketed over $100,000 a year from the CIA for his services to US interests. For years Bush, then the US drugs tsar, protected Noriega from prosecution for drugs running. This was because Noriega used his drug trade to ship arms to the US-backed Contras in Nicaragua. The US hoped Noriega would continue to be its loyal supporter in a strategically vital region, home to the Panama canal. But Noriega's rule faced growing opposition in Panama, and as a result of that pressure he sought to shore up his rule by beginning to raise questions about the US's role in Central America.
That was the signal for the US to use its massive firepower to punish a monster it had created, in a pattern that has been repeated ever since, from Iraq to Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. The US used the invasion of Panama as a testing ground.
Weapons like Stealth bombers, Apache helicopters and laser-guided missiles were unleashed on Panama. A year later they were used in the Gulf War, and now they are being used in Afghanistan.
Former US attorney general Ramsey Clarke admitted, 'It was highly probable they used sophisticated weapons merely to test them. Above all there was the use beyond any conceivable necessity of just sheer firepower.'
Left in hangars
The US repression in Panama did not end with the bombing. US troops also took control of every public building and every organisation opposed to US policy. Thousands of individuals were arrested. Mauro Murillo was one of the many trade union leaders arrested.
As he was taken away one eyewitness captured on video footage could be heard saying, 'Why are they after him? Why don't they go after Bush instead? 'He's the one killing people all over the place. Why are they harassing a worker who is defending other workers?' In the week of the invasion 18,000 people who fled the bombing of their homes were forced to live in detention centres.
Community leader Rafael Olivardia described how the US troops rounded the men up for interrogation: 'They grabbed all men aged between 15 and 55 years old and put them on army trucks. Our hands were tied behind our backs and we didn't know where they were taking us.'
The US bombing made 20,000 people homeless. Some lived in makeshift shelters among the charred remains. Others were housed in two aircraft hangars for more than a year. In one hangar there were ten foot square cubicles each for a whole family!
A legacy of misery
George Bush declared in 1989 that 'democracy is restored. Panama is free.' Nothing could be further from the truth. As one Panamanian man said on video footage in the aftermath of the US invasion, 'This is not democracy. They say get rid of Noriega but they are plenty worse. Because with Noriega we used to eat our three meals a day. Now we are not even eating one.'
After Noriega was tried and jailed in the US in 1990 another US-backed president, Endara, was installed in Panama. He too soon faced a wave of opposition. In 1991 there were demonstrations by students protesting against government policies and price increases. Some 2,000 people also took to the streets demanding compensation for the families who had died.
A year later there were demonstrations when US secretary of defence Dick Cheney inspected US military bases in Panama. Again in 1997 a wave of protest swept Panama when 21,000 teachers went on strike over a plan to 'reform' education. Panama is now being hit by the global economic crisis. As the Economist reported in September,' Discontent is growing as the economy slows.
'Riots over bus fares have been followed by disturbances this week in Colon, the second city, where crime and poverty are rife.'