In 1983, Manuel Noriega unified the armed forces into the Panamanian Defense Forces, promoted himself to the rank of general and became de facto leader of Panama. In 1989, Noriega canceled the presidential elections and attempted to rule through a puppet government. After a military coup against Noriega failed, the United States invaded Panama, and Noriega finally surrendered In January 1990
Born Feb. 11, 1934, Panama City, Pan. Panamanian military leader, commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces (1983–89), who, for the years of his command, was the actual power behind the civilian president.
Noriega was born into a poor family of Colombian extraction. Educated at one of the top high schools in Panama.
Noriega was a career soldier, receiving much of his education at the Military School of Chorrillos in Lima, Peru. He also received intelligence and counterintelligence training at the School of the Americas at the U.S. Army base Fort Gulick in 1967, as well as a course in psychological operations (psyops) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, USA. He was commissioned in the Panama National Guard in 1967 and promoted to lieutenant in 1968. It has been alleged[by whom?] that he was part of the military coup that removed Arnulfo Arias from power, although in Noriega’s account of the 1968 coup, neither he nor his mentor Omar Torrijos were involved. In the power struggle that 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. Noriega claims that, following Torrijos’ instructions, he negotiated an amnesty for about 400 defeated guerrilla fighters, enabling them to return from exile in Honduras and Costa Rica.
Torrijos died in a plane accident on July 31, 1981. Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera, a former associate of Noriega, claimed that the actual cause for the accident was a bomb and that Noriega was behind the incident.
Omar Torrijos was succeeded as Commander of the Panamanian National Guard by Colonel Florencio Flores Aguilar. One year later, Flores was succeeded by Rubén Darío Paredes, and Noriega became chief of staff. The Guard was renamed the Panamanian Defense Forces. Paredes resigned as Commander to run for the presidency. He ceded his post as Commander of the Forces to Noriega.
Involvement with CIA
Although the relationship did not become contractual until 1967, Noriega worked with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from the late 1950s until the 1980s. In 1988 grand juries in Tampa and Miami indicted him on U.S. federal drug charges. The 1988 Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations concluded that “The saga of Panama’s General Manuel Antonio Noriega represents one of the most serious foreign policy failures for the United States. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, Noriega was able to manipulate U.S. policy toward his country, while skillfully accumulating near-absolute power in Panama. It is clear that each U.S. government agency which had a relationship with Noriega turned a blind eye to his corruption and drug dealing, even as he was emerging as a key player on behalf of the Medellín Cartel (a member of which was notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar).” Noriega was allowed to establish “the hemisphere’s first ‘narcokleptocracy’”. One of the large financial institutions that he was able to use to launder money was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) which was shut down at the end of the Cold War by the FBI. Noriega shared his cell with ex-BCCI executives in the facility that is known as “Club Fed”.
In the 1988 U.S. presidential election, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis highlighted this history in a campaign commercial attacking his opponent, Vice President (and former CIA Director) George H. W. Bush for his close relationship with “Panamanian drug lord Noriega.”
De facto rule of Panama
Noriega strengthened his position as de facto ruler in August 1983 by promoting himself to full general. Noriega, being paid by the CIA, extended new rights to the United States, and, despite the canal treaties, allowed the U.S. to set up listening posts in Panama. He aided the American-backed guerrillas in Nicaragua by acting as a conduit for U.S. 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 Salvadoran rightist Roberto D’Aubuisson to restrict the movements of leaders of the leftist Salvadoran insurgent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in Panama, and likewise rebuffed demands by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the United States Marine Corps 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, Noriega allowed the first presidential elections in 16 years. When the initial results showed former president Arnulfo Arias on his way to a landslide victory, Noriega halted the count. After brazenly manipulating the results, the government announced that the PRD’s candidate, Nicolás Ardito Barletta Vallarino, had won by a slim margin of 1,713 votes. Independent estimates suggested that Arias would have won by as many as 50,000 votes had the election been conducted fairly.
About this time, Hugo Spadafora, a vocal critic of Noriega 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 by a death squad at the Costa Rican border. Later, his decapitated body was found, showing signs of extreme torture, wrapped in a United States Postal Service 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 of the murder, which was alleged by some to have been at the direction of his Chiriquí Province commander, Luis Córdoba. A conversation captured on wiretap between Noriega (in Paris) and Córdoba:
Córdoba: “We have the rabid dog.”
Noriega: “And what does one do with a dog that has rabies?”
President Barletta was visiting New York City at the time. A reporter asked him about the Spadafora matter, and he promised an investigation. Upon his return to Panama, he was summoned to FDP headquarters and told to resign. He was replaced by First Vice President Eric Arturo Delvalle. As a friend and former student of George Shultz, 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. Herrera, a former member of Noriega’s inner circle, told Panama’s main opposition newspaper, La Prensa, that Noriega was behind Spadafora’s murder, many other killings and disappearances as well. This resulted in an immediate outcry from the public.
The “Civic Crusade”, which opposed Manuel Noriega, was formed in 1981. Supporters of Noriega referred to the Civic Crusade as a creature of the rabiblancos or “white-tails”, the wealthy elite of European extraction that dominated Panamanian commerce and that had dominated Panamanian politics before the advent of Torrijos. Noriega, like Torrijos, was dark-skinned and claimed to represent the majority population who were poor and of Zambo heritage (mixed African and Amerindian ancestry). 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 rather than the cruder and louder pots and pans traditionally banged by the poor in South American protests, or sending their maids to protest for them. 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 in advance and routinely rounded up leaders and organizers the night before rallies. All of the peaceful rallies were brutally dispersed by Noriega’s army and paramilitary forces known as the Dignity Battalions. Many people were beaten severely, incarcerated, and killed during the protests. Meanwhile he arranged rallies of his own, often under threat (for example, taxi drivers were told they had to attend a rally in support of Noriega or lose their licenses). 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.
The elections of May 1989 were surrounded by controversy. A PRD-led coalition nominated Carlos Duque, publisher of the country’s oldest newspaper, La Estrella de Panamá. Most of the other political parties banded behind a unified ticket of Guillermo Endara, a member of Arias’ Authentic Panameñista Party, along with vice-presidential candidates Ricardo Arias Calderón (no relation to Arnulfo Arias) and Guillermo Ford.
According to Guillermo Sanchez, the opposition alliance knew that Noriega planned to rig the count, but had no way of proving it. They found a way through a loophole in Panamanian election law. The alliance, with the support of the Roman Catholic Church, set up a count based directly on results at the country’s 4,000 election precincts before the results were sent to district centers. Noriega’s lackeys swapped fake tally sheets for the real ones and took those to the district centers – but by this time the opposition’s more accurate count was already out. It showed Endara winning in a landslide even more massive than 1984, beating Duque by a 3-to-1 margin. Noriega had every intention of declaring Duque the winner regardless of the actual results. However, Duque knew he had been badly defeated and refused to go along.
Rather than publish the results, Noriega voided the election, claiming “foreign (i.e., American) interference” had tainted the results. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, there as an observer, denounced Noriega, saying the election had been “stolen,” as did Bishop Marcos G. McGrath.
The next day, Endara, Arias Calderón and Ford rolled through the old part of the capital in a triumphant motorcade, only to be intercepted by a detachment of Noriega’s paramilitary Dignity Battalions. Arias Calderón was protected by a couple of troops, but Endara and Ford were badly beaten. Images of Ford running to safety with his guayabera shirt covered in blood were broadcast around the world. When the 1984–89 presidential term expired, Noriega named a longtime associate, Francisco Rodríguez, as acting president. The United States, however, recognized Endara as the new president.
United States invasion of Panama
Main article: United States invasion of Panama
The U.S. imposed 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 troops. On December 15, 1989, the PRD-dominated legislature spoke of “a state of war” between the United States and Panama. It also declared Noriega “chief executive officer” of the government, formalizing a state of affairs that had existed for six years.Noriega subsequently claimed that this statement referred to U.S. actions against Panama, and did not represent a declaration of hostilities by Panama. The U.S. forces conducted regular “freedom of movement” maneuvers and operations, such as Operation Sand Flea and Operation Purple Storm. Psychological warfare designed to harass the enemy, the U.S. military contended the exercises were justified by the Panama Canal Treaty of 1980 (Torrijos-Carter Treaties), which guaranteed the U.S. forces freedom of movement in the country in defense of the canal. Panama considered the exercises themselves a violation of the treaties, and Noriega called them acts of war against .
On the other hand, Noriega’s forces are said to have engaged in routine harassment of U.S. troops and civilians. Three incidents in particular occurred very near the time of the invasion, and were mentioned by U.S. President George H. W. Bush as a reason for invasion. In a December 16 incident four U.S. personnel were stopped at a roadblock outside PDF headquarters in the El Chorrillo neighborhood of Panama City. The United States Department of Defense said that the servicemen were unarmed and in a private vehicle and that they attempted to flee the scene only after their vehicle was surrounded by a crowd of civilians and PDF troops. Second Lieutenant Robert Paz of the United States Marine Corps was shot and killed in the incident. The LA Times claims sources state he was a member of the ‘Hard Chargers’, a group not sanctioned by the military whose goal was to agitate members of the PDF. The PDF claimed the Americans were armed and on a reconnaissance mission. Maj. Gen. Marc A. Cisneros, deputy commander of the Southern Command at the time of the invasion, said in a recent interview “The story you’ve got from somebody that these guys were a vigilante group trying to provoke an incident—that is absolutely false”. According to an official U.S. military report, a U.S. naval officer and his wife who were witnesses to the incident were assaulted by Panamanian Defense Force soldiers while in police custody. A week before the U.S. invasion, a cable from an American diplomat to Washington described Noriega as a “master of survival” and, according to the New York Times, the diplomat did not have an inkling of the coming invasion one week later.
The United States invasion of Panama was launched on December 20, 1989. Losses on the U.S. side were 24 troops, plus 3 civilian casualties. Statistics of the number of Panamanian civilian deaths remain disputed; the New York Times and Newsweek magazine reported between 202 and 220. The conflict also caused some considerable internal displacement, with 20,000 to 30,000 having been rendered homeless.[citation needed.
On December 29, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted 75–20 with 40 abstentions to condemn the invasion as a flagrant violation of international law. According to a CBS poll, 92% of Panamanian adults supported the U.S. incursion, and 76% wished that U.S. forces had invaded in October during the coup. However, others dispute this finding, claiming that the Panamanian surveys were completed in wealthy, English-speaking neighborhoods in Panama City, among Panamanians most likely to support US actions.
January 1, 1990, Gen. Manuel Noriega is escorted onto a U.S. Air Force aircraft by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Main article: Operation Nifty Package.
In 1989 the general was overthrown and captured during Operation Nifty Package, as part of the United States invasion of Panama. He was detained as a prisoner of war, and later taken to the United States.
Noriega fled during the invasion, and a manhunt ensued. He threatened that he would call for guerrilla warfare if the Apostolic Nuncio did not give him refuge. He was discovered to be in the Apostolic Nunciature, the Holy See's embassy in Panama. Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990.
Criminal prosecution in the United States.
In April 1992 a trial was held in Miami, Florida, at the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida in which he was tried and convicted on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering.
At his trial, Noriega intended to defend himself by presenting his alleged crimes within the framework of his work for the US Central Intelligence Agency. The government objected to any disclosure of the purposes for which the United States had paid Noriega because this information was classified and its disclosure went against the interests of the United States. In pre-trial proceedings, the government offered to stipulate that Noriega had received approximately $320,000 from the United States Army and the Central Intelligence Agency. Noriega insisted that "the actual figure approached $10,000,000, and that he should be allowed to disclose the tasks he had performed for the United States". The district court held that the "information about the content of the discrete operations in which Noriega had engaged in exchange for the alleged payments was irrelevant to his defense". It ruled that the introduction of evidence about Noriega's role in the CIA would "confuse the jury".
After the trial, Noriega appealed this exclusionary ruling by the judge to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the government, despite disagreeing with the lower court. It said: "Our review leads us to conclude that information regarding the purposes for which the United States previously paid Noriega potentially had some probative value … Thus, the district court may have overstated the case when it declared evidence of the purposes for which the United States allegedly paid Noriega wholly irrelevant to his defense". However, the Court of Appeals refused to set aside the verdict because it felt that "the potential probative value of this material, however, was relatively marginal".
On September 16, 1992, Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison (later reduced to 30 years).
Noriega was incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institution, Miami in Dade County, Florida.
Before receiving his permanent prison assignment, Noriega was placed in the Federal Detention Center, Miami, facility.Noriega resided in the Federal Correctional Institution, Miami, in an unincorporated area of Miami-Dade County, Florida, and had the Federal Bureau of Prisons ID number 38699-079.
Under Article 85 of the Third Geneva Convention, Noriega is still considered a prisoner of war, despite his conviction for acts committed prior to his capture by the "detaining power" (the United States). This status has meant that in Florida he had his own prison cell furnished with electronics and exercise equipment. His cell had been nicknamed “the presidential suite”.
It was reported that Noriega had been visited by evangelical Christians, who claimed that he had become a born-again Christian. On May 15–16, 1990, while Noriega still awaited trial, Clift Brannon, a former attorney-turned-preacher, and a Spanish interpreter, Rudy Hernandez, were allowed to visit the prisoner for a total of six hours in the Metropolitan Correctional Center of Dade County, Florida. Following their visit, Noriega wrote Brannon as follows:
On completing the spiritual sessions that you as a messenger of the Word of God brought to my heart, even to my area of confinement as Prisoner of War of the United States, I feel the necessity of adding something more to what I was able to say to you as we parted. The evening sessions of May 15 and 16 with you and Rudy Hernandez along with the Christian explanation and guidance were for me the first day of a dream, a revelation. I can tell you with great strength and inspiration that receiving our Lord Jesus Christ as Savior guided by you, was an emotional event. The hours flew by without my being aware. I could have desired that they continue forever, but there was no time nor space. Thank you for your time. Thank you for your human warmth, for your constant and permanent spiritual strength brought to bear on my mind and soul. – With great affection, Manuel A. Noriega.
Noriega’s prison sentence was reduced from 30 years to 17 years for good behavior. After serving 17 years in detention and imprisonment, his prison sentence ended on September 9, 2007. He was held under U.S. custody before being extradited to French custody. Noriega was incarcerated in the La Santé Prison and was released and flown back to Panama on December 11, 2011.
Criminal prosecution in France
Until 2011, Noriega was housed in the La Santé Prison (center) in Paris
The French government requested the extradition of Noriega after he was convicted of money laundering in 1999. The French claimed Noriega laundered some $3 million in drug proceeds by purchasing luxury apartments in Paris. Noriega was convicted in absentia, but France agreed to give him a new trial if he were extradited. He faced up to 10 years in French prison if convicted.
In August 2007, a US federal judge approved a request from the French government to extradite Noriega from the United States to France after his release. Noriega has also received a long jail term in absentia in Panama for murder and human rights abuses. Noriega appealed his extradition to France because he claimed that country would not honor his legal status as a prisoner of war. In 1999, the Panamanian government sought the extradition of Noriega to face murder charges in Panama because he had been found guilty in absentia in 1995 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
On February 20, 2010, Noriega’s lawyers filed a petition with the Supreme Court of the United States to block his extradition to France, after the court refused to hear his appeal the previous month. Noriega’s attorneys had hoped the dissenting opinion in that ruling, written by Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, would convince the full court to take up his case, but on March 22, 2010, the Supreme Court refused to hear the petition. Two days after the refusal, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami lifted the stay that was blocking Noriega’s extradition. Later that month, after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed the surrender warrant, Noriega’s attorney stated that he would travel to France and try to arrange a deal with the French government.
On April 26, 2010, Noriega was extradited to France. Noriega’s lawyers claimed the La Santé Prison, at which he was held, was unfit for a man of his age and rank; the French government refused to grant him prisoner of war status, which he had in the United States.
On July 7, 2010, Noriega was convicted by the 11th chamber of the Tribunal Correctionnel de Paris, and sentenced to seven years in jail.The prosecutor in the case had sought a ten-year prison term. In addition, €2.3 million (approximately US$3.6 million) that has long been frozen in Noriega’s French bank accounts was ordered to be seized.
Return to Panama
Panama asked France to extradite Noriega to them so he could face trial for human rights violations there. The French government previously stated that extradition would not happen before the case in France had run its course.However, on September 23, 2011 a French court ordered a conditional release for Noriega to be extradited to Panama on October 1, 2011. He was extradited on December 11 and incarcerated at El Renacer prison to serve time for crimes committed during his rule. On February 5, 2012, Noriega was moved from the El Renacer prison to the Hospital Santo Tomas because of high blood pressure and a brain hemorrhage where he remained for four days before being returned to prison