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General Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno (born February 11, 1938) was a Panamanian general and the de facto military leader of Panama from 1983 to 1989. He was initially a strong ally of the United States and is said to have been paid by the CIA from the late 1950s to 1986. By the late 1980s his actions had become increasingly unacceptable to American law enforcement officials and policymakers, and he was overthrown and captured by a U.S. invading force, Operation Just Cause, in 1989. He was taken to the United States, tried for drug trafficking, and imprisoned in 1992. He remains imprisoned in a federal prison in Miami, Florida where his daughters and his grandchildren frequently visit. On October 24, 1992, in a baptistry provided by American Rehabilitation Ministries, General Manuel Noriega was buried in baptism and immersed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the chambers of the Honorable William M. Hoeveler. On December 4, 2004, he was moved to an undisclosed Miami hospital after suffering a very minor stroke.
Born in Panama City, Noriega was a career soldier, receiving much of his education at the Military School de Chorrillos in Lima, Peru and at the School of the Americas in Panama (which has since moved to Fort Benning, Georgia). He was commissioned in the National Guard in 1967 and promoted to Lieutenant in 1968. It has been alleged that he was part of the military coup d'etat that removed Arnulfo Arias from power; in Noriega's account of the 1968 coup, neither he nor his mentor Omar Torrijos were involved. In the power struggle which followed, including a failed coup attempt in 1969, Noriega supported Torrijos. He received a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and was appointed chief of military intelligence by Torrijos, Commander of the Armed Forces in the new government. In this post, he conducted a ruthless campaign against peasant guerrillas in Western Panama, and there are allegations that he orchestrated the "disappearances" of political opponents. However, Noriega also claims that, following Torrijos' instructions, he negotiated an amnesty for about 400 defeated guerilla fighters, enabling them to return from exile in Honduras and Costa Rica.
Omar Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981 In the best-selling Confessions of an Economic Hit-Man, published in 2004, John Perkins claims that a bomb was planted aboard the plane by US interests, with Panamanian control over the Panama Canal being the point of contention. This is disputed, as Colonel Diaz Herrera, a former associate of Noriega's claimed that Noriega was behind the bombing.
Torrijos was succeeded by Rubén Darío Paredes, while Noriega became Chief of Staff. Noriega enhanced his position as de facto ruler in August 1983 by promoting himself to General. Noriega proved himself an ally to the US. Despite the canal treaties, he allowed the US to set up listening posts in Panama, acted as a diplomatic go-between with Cuban president Fidel Castro, and agreed to an American government request that he provide a refuge for the Shah of Iran. He aided the pro-American forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua by acting as a conduit for American money, and according to some accounts, weapons. However, Noriega insists that his policy during this period was essentially neutral, allowing partisans on both sides of the various conflicts free movement in Panama, as long as they did not attempt to use Panama as a base of military operations. He rebuffed requests by Salvadorean rightist Roberto D'Aubuisson to restrict the movements of FMLN (leftist Salvadorean insurgent) leaders in Panama, and likewise rebuffed demands by American Lt. Colonel Oliver North that he provide military assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras. Noriega insists that his refusal to meet North's demands was the actual basis for the U.S. campaign to oust him.
In October 1984, the first Presidential elections since 1972 were won by Nicolas Ardito Barletta , amid allegations of fraud, by a slim margin of 1,723 votes. Barletta was a former student of United States Secretary of State George Schultz at the University of Illinois.
About this time, Hugo Spadafora, a vocal critic of Noriega's who had been living abroad, announced Noriega's drug connections and his intent to return to Panama to oppose him. He was siezed from a bus at the Costa Rican border. Later, his decapitated body was found showing signs of extreme torture, and his head was found in a U.S. Postal mailing bag. His family and other groups called for an investigation into his murdur, but Noriega stonewalled any attempts at an investigation. Noriega was in Paris at the time the murder took place, probably at the direction of his Chiriqui Province commander, Luis Cordoba. In the book "In the Time of the Tyrants", R.M. Koster relates a conversation captured on wiretap between Noriega (in Paris) and Cordoba: Cordoba - "we have the rabid dog". Noriega - "what do you do with rabid dogs?" (rabid dogs are decapitated so the brain tissues can be examined).
While in New York, a reporter asked Nicolas Barletta about the Spadafora matter and he promised an investigation. Upon his return to Panama, he was dismissed by Noriega, and replaced by his Vice President, Eric Arturo Delvalle . As a friend and former student of George Schultz, Barletta had been considered "sacrosanct" by the United States, and his dismissal signaled a marked downturn the relations between the U.S. and Noriega.
According to statements made by former CIA Director Admiral Stansfield Turner in 1988, Noriega was on the CIA payroll since the early 1970s and he retained U.S. support until February 5, 1988 when the DEA had him indicted on federal drug charges relating to his activities before 1984. On February 25, Delvalle issued a decree, declaring that Noriega was relieved of his duties. Noriega ignored the decree, which he claims had no legal basis, and Delvalle left for the U.S. Noriega claims that on March 18, 1988, he met with U.S. State Department officials William Walker and Michael Kozak , who offered him $2 Million to go into exile in Spain. According to Noriega, he refused the offer.
Noriega suffered from severe acne and was nicknamed "Cara de Piña" (Pineapple Face) due to his pockmarked complexion.
Colonel Diaz-Herrera, a former member of Noriega's inner circle, broke with him and spilled info about Noriega, claiming he was behind Torrijos' murder, Spadafora's murder and many other items as well, to Panama's main opposition newspaper, La Presna . This resulted in an immediate outcry from the public, and the formation of a "Civic Crusade", which hoped to inspire a Philippines style peaceful revolution in the manner of that which lead to the end of Ferdinand Marcos. Many rallies were held, with the use of white cloths as the symbol of the opposition. Noriega was always one step ahead of them however, having informants within their groups notify his police (DENI) in advance, and routinely rounded up leaders and organizers the night before rallies. Meanwhile he arranged rallies of his own, often under threat (e.g., Taxi drivers were told they had to attend a rally in support of Noriega or lose their licenses).
The elections of May 1989 were surrounded by controversy. Most of the other political parties banded behind a unified ticket of Guillermo Endara Galimany, along with vice presidential candidates Ricardo Calderon and Guillermo "Billy" Ford . An American, Kurt Muse , was apprehended by the Panamanian authorities, after he had set up a sophisticated radio and computer installation, designed to jam Panamanian radio and broadcast phony election returns. The Panamanian government decided to proceed with the election; Noriega's candidate lost by a large margin, too great for Noriega's intended rigging mechanism to sway the vote. Even Noriega's own troops, often bussed around all day to vote repeatedly, often voted against him. Noriega cancelled the election rather than let its result out. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, there as an observer, denounced Noriega, saying the election had been "stolen". Bishop Marcos McGrath did as well. Amid the outcry, Noriega unleashed his Dignity Battalions to suppress demonstrations. In an image caught on video and played out in news sources around the world, Endara's car was attacked by them and his body guard shot and killed. Covered in blood (from the bodyguard), Billy Ford attempted to flee as one of the Dignity Battalions pummelled him repeatedly with a metal pipe. This image brought worldwide attention to Noriega's regime.
The U.S. had imposed harsh economic sanctions, and in the months that followed a tense standdown went on between the U.S. military forces (stationed in the canal area) and Noriega's PDF. The US forces conducting regular maneuvers and operations, which Noriega claims were provocative and a violation of the Panama Canal Treaty. On the other hand, Noriega's forces engaged in routine harassment of US troops and civillians, including at least one case of sexual abuse. On December 15, 1989, the U.S. press reported that Noriega had declared a state of war with the U.S. government. Noriega strongly disputes this characterization, claiming that his statement referred to U.S. actions against Panama, and did not represent a declaration of hostilities by Noriega. The matter came to a head in December of 1989: A U.S. Marine, returning from a resteraunt in Panama City was stopped by the PDF and harassed to the point where he panicked and attempted to flee, and was shot and killed.
This gave George Bush the green light to go ahead with Operation Just Cause. With a few noticeable exceptions the invasion was over relatively quickly. Losses on the U.S. side were 23 troops, plus three civilian casualties. The U.S. claimed Panamanian losses were "several hundred", Latin American and international sources have estimated the civilian death toll to have been more in the order of 3,000, with between 20,000 to 30,000 having been rendered homeless. Probably the majority of those resulted from a fire that devestated much of a poor area of Panama City that surrounded the Commandancia, a fortified headquarters that was shelled.
Noriega fled during the attack and a manhunt ensued. He finally turned up in the Nunciature of the Vatican embassy in Panama, where he had taken refuge. U.S. troops set up a perimeter outside this building, which as an embassy was considered sovereign soil of the Vatican and could not be taken directly. The troops guarding it used psychological warfare, attempting to force him out by playing hard rock music outside the residence.  (PDF document) The Vatican complained to President Bush because of this and U.S. troops stopped the noise. After a demonstration a few days later by thousands of Panamanians demanding his judgment for human rights violations, Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990.
The Drug Trial
Noriega was flown to the U.S. and tried on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering in April 1992. Administration critic Noam Chomsky has claimed that the US knew about Noriega's involvement in drug trafficking since at least 1972, and knew that Noriega had stolen previous elections, but allowed all of this to occur over the years, retaining Noriega on the CIA payroll, until it was clear in 1989 that Noriega was no longer controllable by the US. His trial was held in Miami, Florida.
The prosecution presented a case that has been criticized by numerous observers. The prosecution's case was completely reworked several times, as problems developed with the witnesses, whose stories contradicted one another. The U.S. Attorney negotiated deals with 26 different drug felons, including Carlos Lehder, who were given leniency, cash payments, and allowed to keep their drug earnings, in return for testimony against Noriega. Several of these witnesses had been arrested by Noriega for drug trafficking in Panama. Some witnesses later recanted their testimony, and agents of the CIA, DEA, DIA, and the Israeli Mossad who were knowledgeable about Central American drug trafficking have publicly charged that the trial was trumped up. Noriega was found guilty and sentenced on September 16, 1992, to 40 years in prison for drug and racketeering violations. His sentence was reduced to 30 years in 1999, making Noriega eligible for parole in 2006.
- CNN. Newsmaker Profiles: Manuel Noriega. United States of America: Cable News Network. 1988, 1992.
- Cole, Ronald. Grenada, Panama, and Haiti. United States of America: Joint History Office – Defense Technical Information Center, US Department of Defense. 1998, 1999.
- Noriega, Manuel and Eisner, Peter. America's Prisoner -- The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega. Random House, 1997.
- Koster, R.M. and Sanches, G. In the Time of the Tyrants: Panama, 1968-1990. W W Norton & Co Inc, 1990.
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