PANAMA CITY — Rumors that thousands of civilians were killed in last December's U.S. invasion of Panama continue to float through the country, phantoms that live on in the face of official denials, lack of evidence and even the independent findings of respected human rights organizations.
Some in Panama and the United States insist that as many as 4,000 Panamanians died in the fighting, most of them civilians.
There are allegations of mass graves throughout the country where U.S. soldiers, intent on a cover-up, dumped the bodies of victims.
The official casualty estimate of the U.S. Southern Command is that 515 Panamanians were killed. Of those, 202 were civilians and 51 members of the Panamanian military. The rest could not be classified because many Panamanian soldiers were in civilian clothes and others, members of irregular militia units called Dignity Battalions, had no uniforms, U.S. sources said.
Statistics released this week by the Panamanian government said there is proof only of 68 Panamanian military dead and 27 wounded.
Government sources said the total death toll is 570; many of the civilian dead were Dignity Battalion members or were killed in the looting that followed the invasion.
The independent and respected Panamanian Committee for Human Rights said its investigation shows that a total of 565 Panamanians died. An extensive investigation in the spring by the U.S. Physicians for Human Rights came up with similar figures.
The claims of a substantially higher death toll and a cover-up have been given currency in the United States by those who for various reasons opposed the U.S. intervention, which toppled the government of former dictator Manuel A. Noriega and destroyed its military forces.
One of the earliest traceable sources of the assertion of large-scale casualties was former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark. He told a news conference last January in Panama City that he had evidence of 2,000 to 4,000 deaths, mostly civilian.
Asked at the time to substantiate his claim, Clark refused, telling one reporter: "You are an investigative journalist. You find out the sources."
Red Cross workers, human rights organizations and reporters who have spent time investigating the situation never have found any evidence to support Clark's assertion.
The allegation was given new life most recently by a segment on CBS Television's "60 Minutes," which quoted from an allegedly secret U.S. military document that put "casualties" at at least 1,000.
Correspondent Mike Wallace also interviewed a Panamanian woman who said she had found her dead father in an unmarked mass grave and contended that hundreds more were also buried in the cemetery.
However, the U.S. document was written immediately after the invasion, as fighting continued, and its author was providing an estimate, putting his figures together before any bodies were recovered or counted.
His figure included both dead and wounded, not just fatalities, as Wallace implied in his report.
And the woman who told of finding her father's body did not disclose on television that the victim was a lieutenant in the Panama Defense Force on duty at the Comandancia, Noriega's military headquarters and a prime U.S. target on the night of the invasion.
Roberto Troncoso, president of the Panamanian Committee for Human Rights, said that his organization has sought since the invasion to clear up the reports.
"There are no mass graves, no hidden cemeteries," he said in an interview.
One burial site often described as a mass grave of invasion victims is a pauper's cemetery, he said.
"Poor people, or unidentified bodies are buried in Panama in such graves," he said. "Autopsies indicate none was from the invasion."
Troncoso also said his committee has published ads in major newspapers asking people to come forward with claims of missing people or information about graves.
"No more than 15 or so proven cases came from that," he said, adding that his staff had checked all hospitals, clinics and institutions that performed autopsies and found no indication of serious differences from the American and government figures.
"My criticism is not that the Americans have hidden the true death count, or that there are mass graves," he added. "My concern is that of those killed, far too many were civilians, mostly women and children."
These, he said, were the victims of their own "curiosity" and nervous, poorly trained American troops.
"Women and children naturally went to the window and looked out when they heard the fighting," Troncoso said, "and the nervous soldiers shot them."