Manuel Noriega, the former military dictator of Panama, died on May 29, 2017. He was 83.
One of the most unusual experiences I had during my time in Panama in the early 1980s was meeting Manuel Noriega. There was no conversation, mind you. It was an official event at the officers’ club on Fort Amador. I shook hands with him in a receiving line and attempted some small talk, although he did not appear to understand English, which was strange given his long-time connection with the U.S. In fact, many Panamanians—from maids and gardeners to elite members of upper-class society—spoke English very well. Noriega seemed ill at ease at the event, unlike the smiling man-of-the-people one sees in pictures of him.
It was as if he was fulfilling some responsibility that he really did not want to do. At the time, he was the chief of military intelligence, a post given to him by his former mentor, Omar Torrijos, after a 1968 military coup. Torrijos was the Panamanian leader with whom President Carter negotiated the Panama Canal Treaty, which transferred control of the Canal to Panama.
General Torrijos died in a plane crash shortly before I arrived in Panama in January 1982. Unbeknownst to those of us who were not in the military intelligence, Noriega was, at the time of that reception, in the process of consolidating his power. He became the de facto ruler of Panama in December of 1983.
What was known to almost everyone in the military was that Noriega worked with the CIA. The Reagan Administration was worried about the Sandinistas in El Salvador, and Noriega provided a conduit for weapons, military equipment, and cash that the U.S. wanted to get into the hands of friendly forces throughout Central and South America. But he was also a major cocaine trafficker. Nevertheless, the U.S. intelligence officials continued their relationship with him because he was useful for their covert military operations in Latin America.
Noriega ruled Panama with a heavy hand. He repressed the media, expanded the military, persecuted his political opponents, controlled the outcomes of elections by fraud, and became a rich drug trafficker. His relationship with the U.S. soured because of these activities and because he sold intelligence information to opponents of the U.S. In 1988 the U.S. indicted Noriega on drug trafficking charges in Miami, Florida. Then, in 1989, the U.S. invaded Panama, removed Noriega from power, and brought him to the United States, where he was tried on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. He was sentenced to forty years in prison, which was later reduced to thirty years.
When he was released from U.S. prison in September 2007, Noriega was extradited to France where he was tried for murder and money laundering, found guilty, and sentenced to seven years in prison. In 2011 Noriega was extradited to Panama to serve a twenty-year prison term. In March of this year he was operated on to remove a brain tumor. He developed a brain hemorrhage after the surgery, which led to his death.
It was ignominious end for the man who had once brandished a machete during an anti-American tirade and declared to the crowd, “Not one step back!”