PANAMA CITY — PANAMA CITY car salesman Gilberto Arosemena says memories of what happened on Dec. 22 still jolt him from sleep some nights. When three US armored troop carriers suddenly pulled into his Altos del Chase neighborhood two nights after the United States invasion, he cheered their arrival. His neighbors had earlier set barricades against looters with US Military Police help, and they applauded the US forces.
But suddenly, the arriving US troops showered residents with rifle and .50 caliber machine-gun fire, apparently believing they were resistance forces. The three-minute assault stopped only after troops heeded pleas to ``stop killing innocent civilians'' from resident Victor Cruz, an American Vietnam veteran also under fire. When it was over, two Panamanians lay dead, four wounded.
Eight months after the incident, Mr. Arosemena, whose wife is an American working for the US Army in Panama, can understand the bitterness felt by hundreds of nonresisting Panamanian civilians who were caught up in the fight. Many of them lost relatives, or were injured in the battle. Many also were angered by the conduct of some troops and the lack of US compensation for damages they caused. And, in a sign the Panamanian government is also losing patience with Washington, President Guillermo Endara Galimany on Sept. 1 ordered an inventory of invasion damages as a step toward demanding US compensation.
A model of discipline
``I think [US officials] are just trying to cover this whole thing and bury it. And that's not the way to do it,'' says Arosemena, who was shot in the leg, but supports the invasion anyway. ``Two boys died there and there was no need for that.''
The Army generally praises the December invasion as a model of discipline in which 24,000 US troops took care to minimize civilian casualties. The Army also prides itself on rigorously investigating charges of soldier misconduct. The Southern Command says 202 noncombatants were killed. Human rights groups say the figure is 300 or more.
Col. William Mulvey, an Army spokesman, says 24 serious allegations of US troop misconduct were dismissed, five are still open and most of the rest relate to two cases that went to trial. Earlier this month a US Army sergeant was acquitted of charges he murdered a Panamanian at a roadblock on Dec. 23.
``The few number of allegations indicate a well-disciplined and well-led operation in Panama,'' says Colonel Mulvey, adding that US troops reported many of the cases. An Army review found US troops answered what they thought was hostile fire at Altos del Chase. It noted guns were found nearby - which residents say were to fend off looters.
Mr. Cruz says Army investigators asked him what happened at Altos del Chase, but some questions made him uncomfortable.
``This colonel said, `Do you know what a traitor is...?' and `What's this [expletive] I heard about criminal negligence?''' says Cruz, whose US Army career began in 1958 and who now works in the Army's maintenance division in Panama.
Cruz believes troops at Altos del Chase were nervous and exhausted and may have heard shots that lead them to attack. But he wonders why heavy .50 caliber machine guns were used, when they are usually aimed only at hard targets.
``They should have realized when no one answered fire something was wrong,'' he says. ``The only thing that saved us was they were lousy shots.''
Many civilian victims were killed at US military roadblocks and in the neighborhood around Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega's headquarters, which was destroyed.
US lawyer Michael Pierce represents families of at least 25 people killed at US barricades. Most allegations of soldier misconduct stem from such incidents, he says.
Mr. Pierce says the Riano case is typical. Early on Dec. 22, Panamanian Luis Alberto Riano and his wife Grettel drove their blue Volvo to Paitilla Airport to check on their store there. US troops had earlier seized control of the Panama City facility, after losing four men in fierce fighting. There was sniper fire in the area.
When the Volvo entered the parking lot, US Rangers killed Riano with machine-gun fire and stopped the car with an antitank weapon, according to a US Ranger commander's report. Rangers said they shouted and fired warning shots. Mrs. Riano, who was injured says she and her husband received no warnings.
In many other cases, similar conflicting versions have been offered over whether warnings were given. Still, many victims seek US compensation rather than criminal investigations.
``For the people who've suffered, money is more welcome and is also a recognition that the US government was responsible,'' says Rosaura Moreno of the Popular Coordinator of Human Rights of Panama.
The US Army Claims Service in Panama has received hundreds of claims by civilians who were injured, or lost relatives. No indictments have been filed, according to the Panama attorney general's office. The Army contends that most such losses are inevitable in war and not covered by the US Foreign Claims Act. ``They haven't come to us and said they're willing to pay all our bills,'' says Arosemena. Like most victims he has gotten no US help to pay for his operations. The Panamanian government has also let them down, he says, by not demanding US compensation.
``It is a touchy subject for the government,'' says Roberto Troncoso, president of the Panamanian Human Rights Committee. ``Right now they're waiting for US economic aid ... and they don't want any interference.''
Government spokesman Luis Mart'inez denies aid is a factor, saying compensation is a complex matter best left to the US Army.