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Operation Nifty Package
Part of the United States invasion of Panama
Manuel Noriega with agents from the U.S. DEA.jpg
Noriega is escorted onto a U.S. Air Force aircraft by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
Date23 December 1989
LocationPanama City
Result U.S. strategic victory
United States United States Panama Panama
Commanders and leaders
Cdr Tom McGrath
Cdr Norman J. Carley
Manuel Noriega Surrendered
United States 52 US Navy SEALs Unknown ground forces
1 gunboat
Casualties and losses
4 killed
8 wounded
Unknown ground forces
1 jet destroyed
1 gunboat sunk

Operation Nifty Package was a United States Navy SEALs-operated plan conducted in 1989 designed to capture Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega. When Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy, deafening music and other psychological warfare were used to convince him to exit and surrender himself.

The United States claimed that after ten days of psychological harassment, Papal ambassador Monsignor Laboa had threatened to revoke Noriega's sanctuary if he didn't surrender to the United States, although Laboa insisted that he had made no threats of revoking the right of asylum under the Church, but had used his own "precisely calibrated psychological campaign" to force Noriega's departure.[1]

Although the operation was successful, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft would later point to the psychological harassment of the Papal Nuncio as "a low moment in US Army history", noting that their approach had been silly, reproachable and undignified.[2]

Military execution[edit | edit source]

Executed in the starting hours of Operation Just Cause, this operation was handled by SEAL Team 4. Consisting of 48 U.S. Navy SEALs (three SEAL Platoons), this SEAL Team was tasked with destroying Noriega's private jet on the ground at the Punta Paitilla Airport, a coastal airport in Panama City. The SEALS challenged a pair of Panamanian soldiers they saw at the airfield, causing them to flee into a nearby hangar; the ensuing gunbattle killed four SEALS and wounded eight more.[3] Despite the casualties, a well-aimed AT4 rocket destroyed Noriega's plane, resulting in the mission's strategic success.

Another Navy SEAL group, consisting of four divers and men on Zodiac attack boats, was assigned to sabotage Noriega's heavily armed gunboat while it was tied to a pier on the canal. The four divers swam in the canal while being attacked with Panamanian grenades. They also had to avoid a boat that was a suspected Soviet intelligence vessel. Two of the divers descended to the bottom of the canal, beyond the maximum operating limit of their breathing units, and, with two bombs, successfully destroyed Noriega's gunboat.

Encircling the Vatican Embassy[edit | edit source]

On the fifth day of the American invasion, Noriega phoned Monsignor Laboa at the Vatican embassy and explained he would appreciate being able to seek sanctuary within; noting that he would otherwise have to flee to the countryside and wage a guerrilla war. Given only ten minutes to decide, Laboa said he did not confer with the Vatican, but agreed to allow Noriega to enter the Vatican grounds - although from the very start, he confessed that he deceived Noriega, noting that he believed that Panamanian politics necessitated that his own role be to convince Noriega to surrender to the American army, not to grant him asylum within Vatican territory.[1] Laboa later confided he was "surprised and dismayed" that Noriega would choose to seek refuge with the Church.[4]

Noriega fled to the Apostolic Nuncio, the de facto embassy of Vatican City, and took refuge there with four others, Lieut. Colonel Nivaldo Madrinan, head of Panama's secret police; Captain Eliecer Gaitan, who led the special force charged with protecting Noriega; Belgica de Castillo, the former head of the immigration department, and her husband Carlos Castillo.[5][6][7] He turned over the majority of his weapons, and requested sanctuary within.[5] He spent his time in a "stark" room with no air conditioning or television, reading the Bible for the duration of his stay.[5]

American soldiers set up a perimeter outside this building, as any direct action against the embassy itself would have violated international law and enraged Roman Catholics worldwide. US Secretary of State James Baker wrote to the Vatican, insisting that "this is an exception to diplomatic immunity. We've indicted him as a drug dealer...you must understand that having lost American lives to restore democracy in Panama, we cannot allow Noriega to go to any other country than the United States".[2]

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, speaking on behalf of the Vatican, clarified that the strong messages left by American diplomats and military leaders would not be obeyed and Noriega would not be turned over. Navarro-Valls clarified that the Pope had not spoken on the issue except to lament the deaths caused by "absurd imprudence".[8]

The army turned to psychological warfare, blaring rock music at "deafening levels", gunning the engines of armoured vehicles against the Vatican fence, and setting fire to a neighboring field and bulldozing it to create a "helicopter landing zone".[8][9] Reportedly the song "I Fought The Law" by The Clash was played repeatedly.[10]

On December 27, the psychological warfare was turned over to the control of the 4th Psychological Operations Group of Special Operations Command.[8] The Holy See complained to President George H.W. Bush about actions of the American soldiers surrounding the embassy, and after three days, the rock music was stopped.[5]

On December 30, the Vatican clarified that it did not believe Noriega had asylum, "but [was] a person in refuge".[8] Meanwhile, Monsignor Laboa petitioned both Panama and the Vatican to agree to extend the embassy property to include another building; where he had Noriega's four companions moved to prevent them from encouraging Noriega to stay under Vatican sanctuary - allowing him to convince Noriega to leave.[1] A friend of Laboa later told the UPI that Laboa wanted to "go to work on Noriega, weave a sort of spell around him until he gives in".[4]

Surrender[edit | edit source]

After ten days of demoralization, Monsignor Jose Sebastian Laboa told Noriega that he had no choice but to surrender to the American soldiers at the front gate. Time magazine later noted that Monsignor Laboa was not entirely honest with Noriega, falsely telling him that no country in the world was willing to grant him refuge.[5] Monsignor Laboa had also written to the US Army, granting his permission for them to storm the property if they believed his life was in danger.[5] Eventually, Monsignor Laboa said that if Noriega did not surrender to the Americans, the Papal staff would evacuate the building, move into a Catholic high school and declare it the new embassy - leaving Noriega alone in the abandoned building to face the Americans without any benefit of Vatican sanctuary.[11][12]

Noriega asked permission to phone his wife and three daughters, who had taken refuge in the Cuban embassy; he ensured they would be flown to exile in the Dominican Republic if he surrendered.[5]

On January 3, Noriega attended Holy Mass in the Nuncio's chapel and took communion; where Laboa's homily was about the thief on the cross who in one moment asked God to change his life, and reportedly brought tears to Noriega's eyes.[8]

After Mass, Noriega retired to his room where he wrote two letters, one to his wife informing her "I go now on an adventure", and the other thanking the Pope and stressing that he believed himself innocent and that he had always acted in the best interests of the Panamanian people and requesting the Pope's prayers.[8]

Noriega dressed in his tan uniform, receiving permission to bring the Nuncio's bible with him,[5] and went outside into the dark night with three priests who walked with him the fifty paces to the front gate; when he reached the front gate, a "gigantic, enormous" American soldier lunged at Noriega, described as "a broken man",[5] and a number of other soldiers also tackled him to the ground and began searching his effects. His wrists were taped behind his back and he was bundled into a waiting American helicopter which took him to Howard Air Force Base.[8]

Monsignor Laboa later told the press that he was proud at having "outwitted" Noriega and convincing him to surrender himself to the Americans, noting "I'm better at psychology".[11]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 New York Times, "The Noriega Case: Panama City; Papal Envoy Asserts Psychology, Not Ultimatum, Swayed Noriega", January 6, 1990
  2. 2.0 2.1 Bose, Meenekshi. "From Cold War to New World Order: The Foreign Policy of George H. W. Bush", Page 181
  3. Hagerman, Bart. "USA Airborne: 50th Anniversary", Page 154
  4. 4.0 4.1 UPI in Bryan Times, "Vatican Envoy won its psychologial battle with Noriega", Jan. 5, 1990
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 TIME, "A Guest Who Wore Out His Welcome", Jan. 15, 1990
  6. Lonely Planet, Panama, 2007. Page 32
  7. "Supreme Court won't halt Noriega's extradition to France". CSMonitor.com. 25 January 2010. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2010/0125/Supreme-Court-won-t-halt-Noriega-s-extradition-to-France/%28page%29/2. Retrieved 2012-02-05. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 Buckley, Kevin. "Panama", page 247
  9. By Bill Mears. "Ex-Panama dictator loses high court appeal". CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/01/25/scotus.noriega/index.html. Retrieved 2012-02-05. 
  10. Leon Daniel in Bryan Times, "Installing the Gringo's Guy", Jan. 5, 1990
  11. 11.0 11.1 Time magazine, "A Guest Who Wore Out His Welcome", Jan. 15, 1990
  12. Lonely Planet, Panama. Page 27

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