Panama's Attorney General Opens Investigation Into Gustavo Pérez, UESAT, and "Plan Barricada"
Monday, March 01 2010 @ 03:59 PM UTC
Contributed by: Don Winner
Editor's Comment: Without a doubt, intelligence reports exist from December 1989 indicating exactly who participated in the abduction of the US citizens from the Marriott hotel at the start of the US invasion of Panama. It's important to note - the plan to kidnap hundreds if not thousands of US citizens if the US military invaded Panama was part of the strategic defense plan cooked up by Manuel Antonio Noriega himself, known as "Plan Barricada" (Barricade Plan). Noriega intended to hold US civilians as hostages in order to keep the US military forces at bay. I was on active duty at the time and stationed at Howard Air Force Base, and I remember when all of this was being discussed and prepared for prior to the start of the invasion. US military planners were fully aware of Noriega's strategic intent. They knew all about "Plan Barricada" and they took specific actions to deny Noriega the ability to successfully execute his plan.
Evacuations and Relocations: In the months before the US invasion of Panama, thousands of noncombatants - wives, children, and civilians - were evacuated from Panama and returned to the United States. Military members who had been living in rented apartments in Panama City were ordered to move back on base. This was highly controversial at the time among the troops. The men who were living off base were all higher ranking bachelors, mostly E-6's or above for enlisted or younger, unmarried officers. Because of their rank they were allowed to rent apartments in Panama City, paid for by the US government. They considered their ability to live in their own apartments in Panama City to be a significant "perk" and they really (really) didn't appreciate being ordered to move back on base. The lower ranking enlisted guys were already living in the barracks rooms so they were not a problem. Faced with the prospects of "Plan Barricada" the guys who had been living downtown in Panama City were ordered to move back on base. For the most part they were assigned to bedrooms in the family housing units where the married guys were living - those bedrooms were available because the space had been opened up when the family members had been evacuated before the start of hostilities. All of this was done specifically as a response to the threat posed by Noriega's "Plan Barricada" to kidnap and hold US civilians as hostages should the US actually invade Panama. Noriega thought he could generate enough fear among US decision makers that they would never take the risk and order the invasion. The entire concept was a key part of Noriega's defense strategy.
The UESAT: The now-defunct Panamanian Defense Forces had a unit called the "Unidad Especial Anti Terror" (UESAT) (Special Anti Terror Unit). All of the countries in Latin America have a top-echelon or "Tier One" Anti Terror unit that is supposed to mirror the US Delta Force. These units are considered to be the Special Forces and they generally receive the most money, equipment, and training, as well as the best manpower (through a selection and filtering process.) In the case of Panama and the UESAT there was one additional filter applied - all 70 men were hand selected due to their loyalty to Manuel Antonio Noriega. The UESAT was supposed to be Noriega's "shock troops" who he could count on to support him no matter what. At the time of the invasion, in December 1989, Gustavo Pérez, the person at issue who is now the Director of the National Police, was a Lieutenant in, and the second in command of Panama's UESAT. The commander of the UESAT at the time of the invasion was Captain Alexis Omar Garrido. (Note: I have been told the former UESAT commander, PDF Captain Alexis Omar Garrido, is currently on the payroll of the National Police as a personal advisor to Gustavo Pérez. I have not been able to verify this information yet.)
Execute The Plan: Noriega had already ordered the UESAT to execute "Plan Barricada" should the invasion begin. In anticipation that communications could be knocked out early on, many of the units of the Panamanian Defense Forces had standing orders in place - "If the US military invades Panama, then your unit's mission is to..." Obviously, the standing order for UESAT was to execute "Plan Barricada" and to capture and kidnap as many US civilians as possible. They were to be held as hostages in order to provide Noriega with bargaining power, and they would be held and then eventually either released or killed. When the invasion started several elements of the UESAT as well as a handful of officers and units of the now-defunct Panama Defense Forces actually carried out these orders.
- Early on the morning on December 20, 1989, with the US invasion of Panama in progress, members of UESAT went to the Sonesta Building in Punta Paitilla and kidnapped Professor Raymond Dragseth of Panama Canal College. His daughter told the New York Times that they entered by force and said they would kill Dragseth there and then if he didn't accompany them. They also kidnapped Fernando Braithwaite, an employee of the US embassy. Braithwaite and Dragseth were taken to the police station at Rio Abajo and held bound and gagged for almost 24 hours. They were also tortured. It should not surprise anyone if those who followed Noriega until the end shared his sadistic perversions. Early on the morning of December 21, Sergeant Juan Barria Jimenez took Braithwaite and Dragseth to Milla 8 in Chilibre and murdered them with shots to the back of the head. (Source)
Dishonorable Discharge: After Just Cause was over there was a kind of "purge" of the newly created National Police. There was a desire to retain those officers who were politically neutral, while identifying and eliminating those who were Noriega sympathizers. Gustavo Pérez was apparently thrown out of the National Police, precisely due to his conduct during the Just Cause invasion and due to his political allegiance with Manuel Antonio Noriega. Specifically, he was given what we would have called a "dishonorable discharge" for having disgraced the institution with his unit's participation in "Plan Barricada". Gustavo Perez was never investigated, prosecuted, or tried for having kidnapped these US citizens during the invasion. The victims of this crime were happy to have just survived the invasion without having been shot. No one ever filed an official complaint with the Public Ministry against Gustavo Perez.
Official Investigation: And now with today's announcement the Public Ministry is opening an official investigation into the entire matter. Technically speaking, holding citizens as "chips" during an armed conflict is a terrorist act, and in direct violation of the established rules of the Geneva Convention. But rather than a matter of law, this is really more of a political problem for Panama's president Ricardo Martinelli.
In The Hot Seat: I doubt Gustavo Pérez will be able to survive this, politically speaking. Panama is basically divided two to one - with about one third of the people supporting the PRD and the other two thirds supporting anyone who is not PRD. Ricardo Martinelli's selection of Gustavo Perez as the Director of the National Police has always been somewhat of a mystery to me. I know Perez is "anti-gringo" however he has demonstrated his ability to get the job done, specifically with regard to drug seizures. And obviously, Ricardo Martinelli likes him, and after the news of this scandal broke Martinelli signaled his continuing support for Perez. However, I wonder how long Ricardo Martinelli will be willing to stand by and support Perez, as more and more evidence emerges indicating that Perez did, in fact, lead the UESAT raid to kidnap US citizens at the Marriott on the morning of 20 December 1989 as part of the execution of "Plan Barricada".
In My Humble Opinion: Obviously this is a politically charged issue. There are people who want Gustavo Perez out of his position, and they leaked this information to the media in order to get him fired. Actually, the whole Perez/UESAT issue is in reality old news - everyone knew and no body really seemed to care. I suspect the press will keep up the pressure to the point that the administration can no longer ignore the issue. I suspect Gustavo Perez will not be able to survive as the Director of the National Police - however Ricardo Martinelli has indicated his willingness to stick by him. I suspect that sooner or later Martinelli will be forced to cut Perez loose, as be becomes a greater weight around this neck. If the US Embassy weighs in, either publicly or privately, then it's game over for Perez.