Few have heard of Gen. Marc Cisneros, but he deserves much of the credit for the success of Operation Just Cause 10 years ago.
By DAVID ADAMS
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 1999
PANAMA CITY, Panama -- The few who knew about it at the time referred to it as the "Ma Bell" offensive. All it took was a military contacts book, a telephone and someone who could speak Spanish.
It's the largely untold story of the invasion of Panama that unfolded 10 years ago, in the early hours of Dec. 20, 1989.
In the official version of Operation Just Cause, as it was code-named, more than 26,000 U.S. troops, backed by helicopters, gunships, tanks and even stealth fighters, struck with overwhelming force soon after midnight.
Within hours, the military dictatorship of Gen. Manuel Noriega was toppled, and a democratic government installed.
Some 300 Panamanians and 23 GIs died in the invasion. But hundreds more Panamanian and American families might be grieving today were it not for the ingenuity of one man: Gen. Marc Cisneros.
Despite what some fellow officers describe as his heroic actions during Just Cause, Cisneros never received the public acclaim he might have expected. Instead, that went to Gen. Maxwell Thurman, the overall commander of troops in Panama.
Now retired from the military, Cisneros is proud of the conduct of U.S. forces during the invasion. Even so, 10 years later Cisneros believes serious blunders were committed in the planning of the invasion, leading to unnecessary destruction and possibly contributing to loss of life.
In his first detailed discussion of these events since his retirement, Cisneros revealed to the St. Petersburg Times issues that still bother him today.
"I think we could have done it with less troops and less destruction. We made it look like we were battling Goliath," he said.
"We are mesmerized with firepower. We have all these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff."
Cisneros says Thurman and other Army leaders ignored crucial advice from soldiers on the ground.
"They really did not want to take it from me that the majority of Panamanian forces were not going to fight for Noriega," he said. "I know the American mentality is to overkill, and I was concerned about the aftermath. We forget that there's a humanitarian overview."
At the time Cisneros was the commander of the U.S. Army South, the highest-ranking Latino in the Army. The son of a mechanic brought up on the Texas border with Mexico, he could have been drawn straight out of central casting. Tall, muscular, ruggedly handsome, and inspiringly confident, he had looks that belied his 50 years.
Yet, "there was nothing Hollywood about Marc Cisneros," says Gen. Fred Woerner, one of his former commanders in Panama. "Marc's no sentimental bleeding heart. He can be real tough."
Cisneros came to Panama with an impressive combat record. He served twice in Vietnam, first as a senior operations adviser during the 1968 Tet offensive, and then between 1971 and 1973 as a regional adviser.
After arriving in Panama in 1988, he quickly tuned in to the prickly situation. He was well-respected by the Noriega opposition for his fluent Spanish and no-nonsense demeanor. His diplomatic savvy made him an instant hit with foreign embassies, including the Vatican ambassador, Monsignor Sebastian LaBoa.
Cisneros was instructed to ratchet up the pressure on Noriega by strictly enforcing U.S. rights under the Panama Canal treaty.
Cisneros did just that. He wasted no opportunity to show that the United States meant business, with frequent displays of military muscle aimed at warning Noriega that his drug dealing and abuse of power wouldn't be tolerated.
As diplomatic options began to run out, Cisneros was given the task of drawing up invasion plans.
Cisneros and others were confident that the great majority of Panamanians would welcome the invasion. But he worried about a breakdown of law and order in the capital if U.S. troops failed to secure main commercial streets.
Cisneros had predicted this in an early version of the invasion plan. But his warnings went unheeded as the plan was amended in the last weeks by a battle commander, Thurman.
Thurman was a legend in the Army, a bachelor workaholic, known variously as "Mad Max" and "Emperor Maximilian." As head of the Training and Doctrine Command -- sometimes described as the Army's brain -- he was a brilliant administrator.
If Cisneros was a people person, Thurman was a systems manager. The two did not get along.
"There was no concern on the part of Thurman and the Army leadership who came in from outside," said Cisneros. "They felt the looting was not their responsibility. I felt we had to be in the city. That's where the threat was. That's where the resistance was going to be."
Officially, the events of Just Cause were recorded by the Pentagon as an unblemished success. During a speech at the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce in June 1990, Thurman's No. 2, Gen. Carl Stiner, told an audience, "I cannot think of one thing I would do differently." He argued that Just Cause had been brilliantly executed with a minimum of bloodshed.
But Cisneros was later vindicated by a detailed study of the invasion published in 1992 by the U.S. Army War College. It strongly criticized the deployment of forces:
"Anyone who would argue that the breakdown of law and order symbolized by the looting in Panama City came as a surprise is either being disingenuous or confessing to having made a gross error in judgment," it said. "What is more important is the fact that invading a country, with or without the request of the government, conveys a responsibility to restore and maintain public order. The critical question is how the intelligent and experienced senior U.S. military leadership failed to see the obvious and take action."
In fact, action was taken, but only after Cisneros confronted his superiors.
"I went to Gen. Stiner and I told him, "We are going to live with disgrace because of this.' Reinforcements were sent into the city. But it was too late, the looting had occurred," Cisneros said.
By then Cisneros had already taken matters into his own hands on the battlefront.
Right before the invasion, Cisneros met with his senior commanders. "I told them: "Listen, most of these people are not going to fight. Give them a chance to surrender and they will. You don't have to blow everything to kingdom come."'
Also crucial to Cisneros' efforts was the telephone.
The day after the invasion started, Cisneros learned of the capture of a Panamanian officer, Capt. Amadis Jimenez, who was believed to have good relations with the Noriega opposition. Cisneros went to visit Jimenez in a makeshift prison camp and persuaded him to help bring a swift and bloodless end to the fighting.
Using Jimenez's phone contacts, the pair began calling Panamanian military commanders.
"I told them we all wanted to avoid a bloodbath," Cisneros said. "I told them if they maintained law and order, collected all their weapons and didn't do any atrocities, we wouldn't attack them."
It worked. One by one, Noriega's army garrisons began to surrender. Cisneros and Jimenez, who remain friends, estimate their phone calls led to the surrender of 75 percent of the Panamanian forces.
"People describe Marc as having won the war with a telephone," Woerner said. "He saw a way to accomplish the mission, and at the same time minimize the loss of life and destruction. He was the glue in Just Cause."
But Cisneros' superiors remained skeptical. "They couldn't believe it. They felt it was some diabolical trick," Cisneros said.
Hardest to convince was Noriega's right-hand man, Col. Luis del Cid, who commanded defense forces in Chiriqui province, a mountainous region near Costa Rica. Indicted with Noriega in Miami on drug charges, del Cid had more to lose than most if he was captured.
Cisneros figured if del Cid surrendered it would send a strong message to the still-fugitive Noriega that the gig was up. "I told him that if he did not comply there was no escape. I think that's when he decided to surrender."
But Thurman didn't trust del Cid. When Cisneros learned Thurman was planning to bomb him into submission, he feared lives would be needlessly lost.
So he despatched Jimenez in a helicopter to talk directly with del Cid.
Once again, Cisneros read the situation right. Del Cid caved in. Noriega fled into the Vatican embassy the next day.
Cisneros also played a vital role in negotiating Noriega's surrender from his sanctuary. When Thurman ordered U.S. troops to surround the embassy and blast it with abrasive rock music, the Vatican was furious.
Angry words were exchanged between Thurman and Vatican representatives at the embassy gates. LaBoa even threatened diplomatic relations between the United States and the Vatican might be broken off. But tempers eased when Cisneros was appointed to head the American negotiating team. LaBoa had great confidence in Cisneros. He asked for time to work on Noriega.
From his contacts, Cisneros knew LaBoa was a wily ally with the psychological skills to break Noriega down. His previous job at the Vatican was as devil's advocate, critically examining candidates for sainthood.
Several days later, Noriega walked meekly out of the embassy and was whisked to jail in Miami.
But Cisneros' moments in the spotlight did little to enhance his career. He would later be passed over for commander-in-chief of the U.S. Southern Command. His career had to be rescued by allies like Woerner who advocated his promotion. After his retirement he returned to Texas, where he is currently president at Texas A&M University at Kingsville.
Influential figures at the Pentagon, Thurman in particular, never came to trust Cisneros' judgment. "I honestly felt my assessments were taken by Thurman as too biased," Cisneros said. "He thought I cared much more about the Panamanians than anything else."
Thurman died in 1995. And while Cisneros says he does not like to speak ill of the dead, he feels compelled to set the historical record straight.
"I hate to say this about him now because he's dead, but I feel that Just Cause was successful in spite of Thurman," he said. "But history will never capture it that way. History will show that Thurman went over there and Thurman made it happen. It may sound like sour grapes, but I know in my heart I was right and he was wrong."