Panama’s twisted links with the past
PANAMA. In September 1977, after signing the Panama Canal Treaties with Jimmy Carter, Omar Torrijos went traveling. In Israel, besides...
PANAMA. In September 1977, after signing the Panama Canal Treaties with Jimmy Carter, Omar Torrijos went traveling. In Israel, besides attending a dinner in his honor given by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, he negotiated an agreement with the foreign minister, General Moshe Dayan, whereby members of the Panama Guardia Nacional would receive specialized military training in Israel.
The first group learned underwater demolition and were deployed near Gatun Dam on the night of March 15 1978. Their operation, called Huele a Quemado (Something's Burning) was to blow the dam and empty Gatun Lake if the US Senate failed to ratify the treaties in the next day's scheduled vote.
That same year Mike Harari appeared in Panama. A Zionist secret agent since before the founding of Israel, Harari had been picked by Golda Meir to direct the death squads set up to avenge the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games by the Palestinian organization Black September.
The first missions went well, but in July 1973 in Lillehammer, Norway, Harari blundered. He murdered a Moroccan waiter instead of the Palestinian secret operative Ali Hassan Salameh and had members of his team arrested by the Norwegian police. The matter became a huge scandal.
Harari left Israel in apparent disgrace, first to Mexico then to Panama. He presented himself as a man in private business but remained a secret agent with access to the highest circles of the Israeli government. By vocation a spy and assassin, he found a kindred spirit in the chief of Panama's G-2, Liutenant Colonel Manuel Noriega.
Noriega and Harari were partners in the arms smuggling business and collaborated in many intrigues including Iran-Contra. Harari was behind changing the name of the Guardia to Panama Defense Forces (PDF) when Noriega became commandant in August 1983. At the ceremony Noriega publicly acknowledged Harari as his mentor. Between them they hatched the idea of forming an elite force loyal to Noriega, the Special Anti-Terror Unit or UESAT for its initials in Spanish.
UESAT numbered 70 men picked for their devotion to Noriega. Its members were armed with the Uzi sub-machinegun and Galil assault rifle, both of Israeli manufacture, the RPG-7 grenade launcher, and sniper rifles. They wore camouflage and black berets and body armor, and were based on Flamingo Island at the end of the Amador Causeway.
UESAT was trained by Israeli instructors in the use of extreme violence, supposedly to combat terrorists, though it was never employed for this purpose. Its most illustrious action was fought in Altos del Golf at dawn on July 26, 1987, when it assaulted the home of Colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera. Diaz Herrera had an agreement with Noriega to succeed him as commandant. When Noriega double-crossed him, Diaz let loose a flood of inconvenient truths about PDF criminal enterprises--drug trafficking, etc.
Noriega used UESAT to make him shut up. Its troopers blew the doors off the house with high explosives and captured Diaz and 52 civilians, including several women and five children.
On the morning of October 3, 1989, Major Moises Giroldi, commander of the 4th Company, Urraca, captured Noriega when he arrived at PDF Headquarters and held him for nearly five hours. Noriega, however, managed to call his girlfriend Vicki Amado and told her what had happened. She passed the message to Major Gonzalo "Chalo" Gonzalez, who commanded the 7th Company, Macho del Monte, at Rio Hato.
Gonzalez readied his men to go to Panama by air but first advised UESAT commander Captain Ramon Diaz de Leon of the situation.
By training and location, UESAT was the logical unit to recapture PDF Headquarters and free Noriega, but it played no part in the rescue. On crossing the causeway with his men, Diaz encountered a Blackhawk helicopter of US Southern Command hovering in his path and made no attempt to pass. Gonzalez's Unit ended up saving Noriega.
Giroldi was taken to the barracks at Tinajitas and brutally tortured for several hours. Later Noriega ordered Diaz to shoot him. Diaz and and Major Heraclides Sucre opened fire at the same time, Diaz with an Uzi, Sucre with an AK-47. In 1995 a number of people were tried for the murder, including Noriega, Sucre, and Diaz. Of the three only Diaz was present. Noriega was in prison in Miami, Sucre a fugitive in Peru. Diaz's lawyer argued that since the AK-47 bullet is larger than the Uzi's, Giroldi was already dead when Diaz's first bullet struck him. For this or some other reason the jury acquitted him. Noriega and Sucre were convicted.
According to an attorney who participated in the trial, Noriega ordered Diaz to shoot as a proof of loyalty. In punishment, Diaz was separated from UESAT and transferred to the interior of Panama. Captain Alexis Omar Garrido replaced him as commander of UESAT with Lieutenant Gustavo Perez de la Ossa as second in Command.
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.
In an interview on May 23 of this year, Gustavo Perez de la Ossa denied that the kidnapping and murder of Braithwaite and Dragseth were done by UESAT. However, when Sergeant Barria and others were tried for the crimes in November 1995, UESAT's last commander, Alexis Omar Garrido, testified under oath that they acted in accord with a so-called "Plan Barricada" that specified the capture of US citizens in the event of an invasion.
So went UESAT's last operation. It was worthy in every way of the unit and of the army to which it belonged--an army that attacked Panama by surprise, that occupied it by force for 21 years, that defended only the criminal enterprises of its senior officers, and whose most characteristic acts were the torture or murder of unarmed civilians.