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Operation Nimrod Dancer

The rivalry between civilian elites and the Panamanian military, a recurring theme in Panamanian political life since the 1950s, developed into a grave crisis in the 1980s. Prompted by government restrictions on media and civil liberties, in the summer of 1987 more than 100 business, civic, and religious groups formed a loose coalition that organized widespread anti-government demonstrations.

Panama's developing domestic crisis was paralleled by rising tensions between the Panamanian Government and the United States. The United States froze economic and military assistance to Panama in the summer of 1987 in response to the political crisis and an attack on the U.S. embassy. The Government of Panama countered by ousting the U.S. Agency for International Development in December 1987; before the end of the year, the U.S. Congress cut off all assistance to Panama.

General Manuel Antonio Noriega, leader of Panama's Defense Forces, was indicted on money laundering and drug trafficking charges on 05 February 1988 by US grand jury in Miami, FL. In April 1988, President Reagan invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, freezing Panamanian Government assets in U.S. banks and prohibiting payments by American agencies, firms, and individuals to the Noriega regime.

When national elections were held in May 1989, Panamanians voted for the anti-Noriega candidates by a margin of over three-to-one. Although the size of the opposition victory and the presence of international observers thwarted regime efforts to control the outcome of the vote, the Noreiga regime promptly annulled the election and embarked on a new round of repression.

Operation Nimrod Dancer deployed an infantry brigade task force from 7th INF DIV with a mech infantry battalion from 5th INF DIV to protect US citizens and possessions, and perform a show of force in Panama for 6 months in 1989. The Panama Canal Treaty of 1980 guaranteed the US forces freedom of movement in the country to do whatever was necessary to defend the Canal. There were also provisions to exercise and practice the necessary defensive contingency plans. The U.S. exercised these rights by moving units of the 193d Inf Bde (L) with attached Nimrod Dancer/Sustain elements throughout the Old Canal Zone and adjacent areas. The soldiers of 1-504th PIR, 5- 87th Inf, and 4-6th Inf (M) became expertly familiar with the routes to many key facilities and the plans to secure and protect them in the months leading up to JUST CAUSE. This in-depth knowledge of the roads, PDF security positions and, in many cases, the PDF responses to US movement, was critical to the timing of the initial assaults during darkness on the key targets in Panama City and the Old Canal Zone.

In the wake of continuing confrontation with the Panama Defense Forces (PDF) and with the deployment of additional forces to Panama from Operation Nimrod Dancer, US forces conducted exercises called Purple Storm and later Sand Fleas. Their purpose was to enforce to the maximum the Panama Canal Treaty guaranteed rights of movement within Panama. During these exercises, when US forces encountered interference with treaty rights to movement, the commander on the scene (a squad or platoon leader, for example) consulted a card. It authorized such actions as inserting a magazine into a weapon, fixing bayonets, cocking the weapon, issuing a warning, or opening fire. A senior military commander approved each step. At the same time, high performance aircraft flew low-level flights and armed helicopters hovered at the scene. Another technique used artillery to fire illumination or smoke rounds, demonstrating the capability to fire more lethal ammunition. In every case the PDF withdrew or ceased their offensive behavior.


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