Special Operations

Operation Nifty Package (1989)

Operation Nifty Package was a United States Navy SEAL-operated plan conducted in 1989 designed to apprehend or prevent the escape of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Executed in the starting hours of Operation Just Cause, this operation was handled by SEAL Team FOUR. Consisting of 48 U.S. Navy SEALs (three SEAL Platoons), this SEAL Team was tasked with destroying Noriega’s private jet on the ground at the Punta Paitilla Airport, a coastal airport in Panama City. However, this part of the mission put the SEALs into a skirmish with Panamanian military forces guarding the airport, and four SEALs were killed while eight more were wounded. Despite the casualties, a well-aimed AT4 rocket destroyed Noriega’s plane, resulting in the mission’s strategic success.

Another Navy SEAL group, consisting of four divers and men on Zodiac attack boats, was assigned to sabotage Noriega’s heavily armed gunboat while it was tied to a pier on the canal. The four divers swam in the canal while being attacked with Panamanian grenades. They also had to avoid a boat that was a suspected Soviet intelligence vessel. Two of the divers descended to the bottom of the canal, beyond the maximum operating limit of their breathing units, and, with two bombs, successfully destroyed Noriega’s gunboat.

Noriega’s Capture

In Operation Nifty Package, Manuel Noriega fled during the attack and a manhunt ensued. After threatening that he would call for guerrilla warfare if the Apostolic Nuncio did not give him refuge, he was found to have taken refuge in the Apostolic Nunciature in Panama. American soldiers set up a perimeter outside this building, as any direct action against the embassy itself would have violated international laws, constituted an act of war on the Vatican, and enraged Roman Catholics worldwide. The nuncio and his staff unsuccessfully attempted to compel Noriega to leave on his own accord, in an effort to prevent the warfare that he had threatened.

The soldiers surrounding the embassy used psychological warfare, attempting to force the defeated ruler out using the continuous noise from a low flying helicopter while playing loud music outside the embassy. People on the ground at the time report that the music was used to prevent eavesdropping by reporters using directional microphones on confidential discussions between Papal Nuncio staff and the US military. Reportedly the song “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns and Roses was played repeatedly, as was “I Fought The Law” by The Clash. Though the Vatican wished for Noriega to be expelled from the nunciature as well, The Holy See complained to President George H.W. Bush about actions of the American soldiers surrounding the embassy. Soon afterward, they were ordered to stop. After a demonstration a few days later by thousands of Panamanians demanding he stand trial for human rights violations, Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990.


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