IN THE TIME OF THE TYRANTS

Panama: 1968-1990

By R.M. Koster and Guillermo Sanchez

Norton. 430 pp. $22.95

MANUEL NORIEGA, as we have frequently heard, has a lengthy American pedigree. Pinning down the exact details of his lineage, however, is more difficult. Was he on the payroll of the Drug Enforcement Administration? The Central Intelligence Agency? Army Intelligence? All three? How exactly did Washington's secret machinations ease his way to the top? And what of private initiatives and warnings from American civilians? Sorting through all these strands is a daunting proposition.

In this timely and unsparing book, Guillermo Sanchez, a Panamanian newspaperman, and R. M. Koster, an American novelist and journalist with long experience in Panama, take on the task. Along the way, they offer a macabre catalogue of drug and arms smuggling, money laundering, repression, torture and murder, most of it paid for with Yankee dollars.

Traditionally, Washington's policy toward Central America had been to ally itself with the ruling monied classes, which kept things quiet and safe for exploitation from the North. But the Cold War changed that, and by the '50s combating the great commie bugaboo required more guns than graft. "The policy was stupid," say the authors with typical forthrightness; "so were those who made it," thus indicting all American presidents since Eisenhower.

As Washington began building up armies everywhere on the continent, no one seemed to care that real enemies remained illusive, or that the guns were inevitably turned inward in coup after coup. Nelson Rockfeller reported to Richard Nixon in the late '60s that the military in Latin America was "the essential force for constructive social change." But as In the Time of the Tyrants succinctly puts it, "In Latin America, the military are at best drones, at worst cancers."

In Panama, which once had no army, the new National Guard (later renamed the Panama Defense Forces) quickly became malignant. Within barely 10 years, it overthrew the elected government and installed, first, Boris Martinez and then, after he was dispatched to pump gas in Florida, Omar Torrijos.

In the eyes of Koster and Sanchez, Torrijos could do no right. A disorganized, womanizing drunk and coward who "ran Panama out of his hat," even his triumph -- the canal treaty with the United States -- was less his doing than a simple historical necessity that just happened to come to fruition while he was running things. What the authors do hold him responsible for is allowing graft and drug running while instituting the beginnings of a repressive police state, ready to be honed by his successor into an instrument of dread.

Torrijos was also supremely lazy as far as running the country in any systematic, organized way was concerned, and there was a power vacuum in his wake, either because he feared potential rivals or because (which seems more likely) he just never got around to filling it. So when Torrijos died in a plane crush there was no one clearly marked to succeed him.

After a confused attempt at power sharing, control was seized by Noriega, the former chief of intelligence and conduit to various American spy networks. Although the authors delight in repeating (and often substantiating) virtually every rumor we have heard about the man, they don't add much that is new. After all, Noriega himself is only a distraction.

What really matters is how he got where he did and why he lasted. This is where Koster and Sanchez are particularly strong, and this is where the United States stands accused at least as a co-conspirator. As they see it, Washington has two policies: one, for public consumption, "is dedicated to transcendent values," while covert operatives peddle sleaze and the preservation of tyrants. To add to the confusion, neither policy acknowledges the other.

With regard to Noriega, the mixed mesages from Washington meant that "while the visible parts of the U.S. government were trying to oust him, he was in receipt of secret U.S. documents on the subject." Straightening out the chaos finally required a heavy dose of old-fashioned imperialist intervention.

Are there lessons to the debacle of American policy in Panama? Be consistent, say Sanchez and Koster; speak with one voice and stay true to principle. Are these lessons being learned? Not quite yet; just ask Saddam Hussein.

James Polk writes frequently about Latin America.