Manuel Noriega

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For the Mexican stage and film actor, see Manuel "Manolo" Noriega

General Manuel Noriega
Date of birth
February 11, 1938
Place of birth
Panama City, Panama
Career soldier
Military School of Chorrillos
Lima, Peru
School of the Americas

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 also worked for the CIA from the late 1950s to 1986. By the late 1980s relations had turned extremely tense between Noriega and the United States government, and the general 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 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 of 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, 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 refuge for the exiled 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.

Noriega suffered from severe acne and was nicknamed "Cara de Piña" (Pineapple Face) due to his pockmarked complexion.

Rule of Panama

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 Chicago, home of the Chicago Boys (los muchachos de Chicago).

About this time, Hugo Spadafora, a vocal critic of Noriega's who had been living abroad, accused Noriega of having connections to drug trafficking, and announced his intent to return to Panama to oppose him. He was seized 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 murder, but Noriega stonewalled any attempts at an investigation. Noriega was in Paris at the time the murder took place, alleged by some to have been 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 in 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.

Colonel Roberto Díaz 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 Prensa. This resulted in an immediate outcry from the public, and the formation of the "Civic Crusade." Noriega claims that the Civic Crusade was the handiwork of U.S. Embassy chargé d'affaires John Maisto, who arranged for Civic Crusade leaders to travel to the Philippines to learn the tactics of the U.S.-supported movement to overthrow Ferdinand Marcos. Supporters of Noriega referred to the Civic Crusade as a creature of the rabiblancos or "white-tails", the wealthy elite of European extraction which dominated Panamanian commerce, and which had dominated Panamanian politics before the advent of Torrijos. Noriega, like Torrijos, was dark-skinned, and claimed to represent the majority population which was poor and of mixed Spanish, Amerindian and African heritage. Noriega supporters mocked the demonstrations of the Civic Crusade as "the protest of the Mercedes Benz," deriding the wealthy ladies for banging on Teflon-coated pots and pans (unlike the cruder and louder pots and pans traditionally banged by the poor in South American protests), or sending their maids to protest for them. The American press, however, covered these demonstrations with great sympathy. 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 Arias-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 bodyguard 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 standoff went on between the U.S. military forces (stationed in the canal area) and Noriega's PDF: The US forces conducted regular maneuvers and operations, which Noriega claimed 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 restaurant 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.

In response, US President George H. W. Bush launched 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", though exact statistics remain disputed, and some Latin American and international sources have estimated the civilian death toll may have been as high as 3,000. The conflict also caused caused some considerable domestic problems, with 20,000 to 30,000 having been rendered homeless. Probably the majority of those resulted from a fire that devastated 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. [1] (PDF file) 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 he stand trial 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. 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 2029.

In 1999 the Panamanian government sought the extradition of Noriega to face murder charges in Panama, as he had been found guilty in absentia in 1995.

External links


  1. CNN. Newsmaker Profiles: Manuel Noriega. United States of America: Cable News Network. 1988, 1992.
  2. Cole, Ronald. Grenada, Panama, and Haiti. United States of America: Joint History Office – Defense Technical Information Center, US Department of Defense. 1998, 1999.
  3. Noriega, Manuel and Eisner, Peter. America's Prisoner -- The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega. Random House, 1997.
  4. Koster, R.M. and Sánchez, Guillermo. In the Time of the Tyrants: Panama, 1968-1990. W W Norton & Co Inc, 1990.
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