Panamanians dispute casualty figures from invasion One year later, survivors are bitter

December 23, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PANAMA CITY, Panama -- These are the mother's memories.

Henry Lepold Bailey's cold hands are laced as if in prayer, a glittering St. Jude's medal dangling from his neck. He is wearing a black sweater and cream-colored shoes.

When they slashed open the body bag, she recognized her son's worn clothes and the medal.

On that languid afternoon in the Garden of Peace, by a freshly reopened mass grave stacked with military-issue body bags, Beverly Smith gazed at the steamy blue skies of Panama and thought about her dead son and stray dogs.

"Buried like dogs," she remembered later in a flat, hard voice. "That's what bothered us the most."

It is a controversy that has lingered long after the U.S. invasion of December 1989 ended and the bloody corpses were gathered from palm-shaded sidewalks and crowded hospital morgues.

How many people really died in the invasion?

Hundreds, say Panamanian government officials, the U.S. Southern Command, the Roman Catholic Church and one Panamanian human rights group.

Thousands, say several other Panamanian human rights groups.

Ten thousand, says Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, who also insists that far more U.S. soldiers died than were acknowledged by the Pentagon. The former Panamanian leader now resides in a Florida jail after his arrest by U.S. authorities.

Initially, the operation code-named "Just Cause" was described as a "surgical strike" that hit military targets with precision. But in the months that followed, it appeared clear that far more civilians than soldiers had died.

Amid the confusion, the Catholic bishops of Panama have asked the government for a full accounting.

"There are many doubts, and nobody possesses precise data," theywrote in a June pastoral letter. "The people want to know who died and how many died and where their remains are buried."

It is no wonder people are confused.

Some groups question the estimates because the Southern Command removed death toll registries from the hospitals. They complain that the U.S. toll doesn't include the dead who were buried surreptitiously in back yards by frightened relatives or all of the dead whose bodies were burned in the fiery destruction of the El Chorillo neighborhood.

The Southern Command settled on its casualty figure of 202 civilians and 314 Panamanian soldiers, basing its count on reports from soldiers in the field.

The Panamanian Committee on Human Rights estimates the civiliantoll at 556.

The local Catholic newspaper, Panorama Catolico, published a figure of 655 dead.

The Panamanian National Human Rights Commission and the Central American Human Rights Commission estimate a minimum of 2,000.

The human rights group Americas Watch believes that at least 10 civilians were killed for each U.S. soldier who died. Former Panamanian soldiers insist they killed far more than those 23 U.S. soldiers acknowledged by the Pentagon and the Southern Command.

So far, it has been left to the survivors to worry about the arithmetic.

Young widows and their children gather each week in the shady patio of the Casa de Periodistas, a rambling union office for journalists not far from the hospital morgue where the dead were stacked and counted.

Some come with crisp portraits of their dead in military uniform. Some have only grainy photographs tacked to creased driver's licenses.

On one afternoon, more than 200 people gathered in straight-back chairs for silent prayer and a pep talk from Isabel Corro, the survivors association's founder and president.

With notes in hand, Ms. Corro rattled across the hard floor on 3-inch heels and delivered a machine-gun-fire speech that featured practical advice (bronze grave plaques available at a discount) and political attacks ("The Catholic Church talks very well but has given us nothing").

A fierce, no-nonsense woman with dark shadows circling her green eyes, Ms. Corro founded the survivors organization to win recognition for the dead, whom she estimates at 4,000.

The group has organized protests and raised money to rent equipment to unearth bodies from two mass graves in cemeteries named the Garden of Peace and Mount Hope. Ms. Corro was standing alongside a gaping hole when gravediggers recovered the corpse of her stepfather, Jose Dominguez, a deputy lieutenant in the Panamanian Defense Force.

In those two exhumations, 129 bodies were recovered. The names of all but a few of the dead already were on official lists of the dead.

Ms. Corro's group says there may be as many as 12 more common graves scattered throughout the country, and her followers are trying to collect funds to unearth them.

Ms. Corro insists that her list of the dead is the only accurate one

because many families are reluctant to report their losses to the government for fear of retribution or of being labeled Norieguistas. So she refuses to allow her list to be examined.

In contrast, the Panamanian Committee on Human Rights openly shares its list, and its leader, Roberto Troncoso, has chided Ms. Corro for not working with his group.

"I went on radio and publicly asked her to work with us," Mr. Troncoso said. "We never heard from her."

Miguel Antonio Bernal, a lawyer and government critic, also believes the death toll is higher than the official figures.

"But not thousands," he said. "That's crazy. In a country as small as this, people would know."

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