Salas v. United States Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 


Case Description 

Salas v. United States is a case in which the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) brought charges against the United States for the 1989 illegal invasion of Panama and subsequent human rights violations. The case required the U.S. to respond to an international tribunal for the first time in response to allegations by ordinary citizens of such violations.

The 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama left an estimated 2,000 civilians dead and 18,000 homeless. The following year, CCR filed a complaint with the Organization of American States (OAS) on behalf of 272 civilian victims, charging that the invasion was illegal under international law and demanding a full investigation and compensation for victims.

The plaintiffs include relatives of Dionisia Salas, who was killed by U.S. rocket fire in her home as she prepared a meal for her family, and relatives of Elizabeth Ramos Rudas, a 23-year-old civil engineering student killed the night of the invasion, whose corpse was discovered weeks later in a mass grave in Panama City.

At two evidentiary hearings held in 1995, international human rights experts and witnesses presented evidence of the illegality of the U.S. invasion, the devastation visited upon the civilian population of Panama by U.S. firepower, and the methods by which U.S. authorities disposed of bodies. Independent Panamanian human rights organizations estimate that more than 2,000 civilians were killed in the invasion – many buried in common graves containing hundreds of corpses – and many thousands wounded.

For more than two years, the U.S. government tried to deny the Commission’s jurisdiction, but the OAS agreed to hear the case in 1993. Three years later, however, the OAS told CCR attorneys it had “no time” to decide on the merits of the case. Survivors of the invasion held demonstrations and yearly vigils at OAS headquarters in Panama. A decision has been pending since the fall of 1998.