Ruled Panama from 1983 to 1989, when U.S. military invaded
Convicted of drug-trafficking, racketeering, money laundering
Before Saddam Hussein there was Manuel Noriega. Like Saddam, Noriega enjoyed US support until he turned into a wayward ally, then an embarrassment, and finally an “imminent danger” who had to be overthrown.
Noriega was recruited as a CIA informant while studying at a military academy in Peru. He received intelligence and counterintelligence training at the School of the Americas at Fort Gulick, Panama, in 1967, as well as a course in psychological operations at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was to remain on the CIA payroll until February 1988.
After a military coup in 1968, Noriega quickly rose through the ranks and became head of Panama’s military intelligence and a key figure under General Omar Torrijos, the military ruler who signed a treaty with the US to restore the Panama canal zone to Panamanian sovereignty in 1977.
After Torrijos’s death in a mysterious plane crash in 1981, Noriega consolidated his power, becoming Panama’s de facto ruler, promoting himself to full general in 1983.
Noriega made himself valuable to the US during the Contra wars when he allowed the US to set up listening posts in Panama and by helping the US campaign against the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Noriega allowed Panama to be used as a conduit for US money and weapons for the Contras as then US president Ronald Reagan sought to undermine the Sandinistas. But Noriega’s increasing brutality turned him into a liability, especially after the assassination of Hugo Spadafora, a political opponent who was found beheaded in 1985.
Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator ousted by a U.S. invasion in 1989 and convicted on charges of cocaine trafficking, racketeering and money laundering, has died. He was 83.
Panama’s president, Juan Carlos Varela, announced Noriega’s death on Twitter on Tuesday. Noriega was being treated at a hospital for complications following the removal of a brain tumor in March.
As dictator from 1983 to 1989, the former general and Central Intelligence Agency source was accused of rigging elections, having ties to drug traffickers and ordering the killings of opponents. His “Dignity Battalions” broke up protests with baseball bats. After 22 years in U.S. and French jails, Noriega was returned to Panama in December 2011 to face murder and embezzlement charges connected to his six-year rule.
In a June 2015 interview with Panama television station Telemetro, Noriega said his time in jail “exceeds the sentences that were imposed upon me.”
While in power, Noriega collaborated with U.S. intelligence agencies, which paid him for assisting rebel forces to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista-led government in the 1980s. Noriega also was taking money from Colombian drug cartels, according to 1988 U.S. congressional hearings.
“Everyone was sleeping with Noriega,” Joel McCleary, Noriega’s former political adviser, told author Frederick Kempe in his 1990 book, “Divorcing the Dictator: America’s Bungled Affair With Noriega.” As the strongman grew more corrupt and entered the drug trade, “you had to get rid of him,” McCleary said.
U.S. President George H.W. Bush did just that, sending troops to invade Panama on Dec. 20, 1989, in what was then the largest American military deployment since the Vietnam War. The move came after Noriega said his nation was in a state of war with the U.S. and an off-duty American marine was shot and killed by Noriega’s forces in Panama City.
“Many attempts have been made to resolve this crisis through diplomacy and negotiations,” Bush said in an address after the invasion was underway. “All were rejected by the dictator of Panama.” Noriega’s continued rule “created an imminent danger to the 35,000 Americans in Panama,” Bush added.
As thousands of paratroopers descended on Panama City, Noriega sought asylum at the Vatican embassy. He surrendered two weeks later.
Handcuffed and whisked away to a south Florida prison, Noriega was convicted of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering. He was extradited to France in 2010 to serve a separate money-laundering sentence.
Noriega long insisted that American political considerations were at the root of his ouster and criminal trial.
In “America’s Prisoner,” his 1997 memoir written with Peter Eisner while Noriega was at the Metropolitan Correction Center in Miami, Noriega said he served the CIA as “a reliable conduit of messages” to Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
With his health failing, Noriega had wanted to “return to his country and live a quiet life,” Julio Berrio, his lawyer in Panama, said in a December 2011 interview. He was confined to a one-room cell at a detention center along the Panama Canal. Then-President Ricardo Martinelli vowed to keep him in jail as retribution “for all the horror” he caused.
Manuel Antonio Noriega was born in Panama City and raised by foster parents, according to the Associated Press. While most sources said he was born Feb. 11, 1934, the year of his birth was sometimes in dispute, with 1936 and 1938 given as alternatives. One possible reason for the discrepancy was his claim, during his youth, to be older than he was to win a scholarship to a military academy in Peru.
Following his education in Peru, Noriega joined Panama’s joint military and police force. He was appointed as head of military intelligence in 1970, aided by his role in quashing a coup attempt against Omar Torrijos a year earlier.
Under Torrijos, a populist general who sought to end U.S. control of the Panama Canal, Noriega served as the country’s security liaison with the CIA in Washington. He also oversaw rapes and torture of opponents, Roberto Diaz Herrera, a Panamanian colonel who was arrested in 1987 after denouncing Noriega, told La Prensa, the nation’s largest newspaper.
In 1981, Torrijos died in a plane crash over Panama’s central highlands, leaving a power vacuum that Noriega filled. The military officer, popularly derided as “pineapple face” for his acne scars, promoted himself to general and by 1983 held control of the defense forces.
As head of state, Noriega was accused of rigging elections to favor presidential candidates who wouldn’t challenge his power. In 1984, Nicolas Barletta of Noriega’s Democratic Revolutionary Party became president amid allegations of voter fraud.
Widening protests against Noriega emerged after 1985, when Hugo Spadafora, a physician and former government official who criticized the regime, was found decapitated in Costa Rica. President Barletta refused to defend Noriega from allegations that he orchestrated the murder and was forced to resign.
“Listen to me,” Barletta told Noriega, as recounted by author Stephen Kinzer in his 2006 book “Overthrow.” “The day will come when you are sorry for what you are doing.”
Noriega’s ties to drug traffickers and connections with U.S. intelligence agencies were reported by the New York Times in 1986, prompting congressional hearings headed by Senators Jesse Helms and John Kerry. In court filings, U.S. prosecutors said the Army and CIA paid Noriega about $320,000 over his career, including payments to secure his help for the Contra rebels trying to topple Nicaragua’s government. Nevertheless, at the same time he was accepting that money he also arranged talks with Nicaragua’s Sandinista leaders to end the conflict.
In May 1989, Noriega held presidential elections in which the opposition candidate, Guillermo Endara, appeared to win by a 3-to-1 margin, according to monitors with the Atlanta-based Carter Center.
Carlos Duque was declared president instead, while Endara and his running mate, Guillermo ‘Billy’ Ford, were beaten with sticks and pipes by Noriega supporters in the streets of the capital.
Six months later, 20,000 U.S troops invaded as part of Operation Just Cause. Noriega’s surrender followed a barrage of rock music outside the Vatican’s embassy including, “I Fought the Law” by the Clash and “Nowhere to Run” by Martha and the Vandellas.
The former dictator, with his wife Felicidad Sieiro de Noriega, had three daughters.