(nbcchicago)The president of Panama on Thursday declared an annual national holiday to commemorate Panamanians who died during the 1989 U.S. invasion of the country.
The decree signed by President Laurentino Cortizo establishes Dec. 20, the date of the invasion, as a national day of mourning. People in Panama will have the day off.
“By enacting this law, we settle a debt with the nation, with those who died in that tragic event, who we remember with respect,” Cortizo said.
A truth commission that was set up years ago documented about 20 disappearances from the U.S. military action which toppled strongman Manuel Noriega.
During the month-long so-called “Operation Just Cause,” the U.S. sought to remove Noriega and bring him to the U.S. on drug and racketeering charges. Noriega was deposed and stood trial in the U.S.
About 300 Panamanian soldiers and 214 civilians were killed during the invasion, according to official estimates, while the U.S. military reported 23 deaths among its troops. Human rights groups believe the number of Panamanian dead could be higher.
“It took us a long time to achieve this demand, and finally, the day has arrived,” said Trinidad Ayola, president of the Association of Friends and Relatives of Victims of Dec. 20.
Questions remain about where some of the Panamanians were buried.
Forensic workers have exhumed several bodies from a Panama City cemetery to determine their identities. The cemetery contains more than 100 people killed during the invasion that were first exhumed months after the invasion because they had been buried in common graves.
DNA testing is expected to take months.