In Panama there is one person whose name often evokes immediate terror. It is not Omar Torrijos.
It is Noriega. Col. Manuel A. Noriega.
Noriega is the chief of intelligence, G-2. The head of La Guardia Nacional. That would be like being head of the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Defense and the Police Department all at once. Which means he has all the troops. Which means he has the power. Which means that both President Lakas and Omar Torrijos are said to be not completely at ease with the situation. Because if Noriega wanted to overthrow the government he probably could.
President Lakas will say, "Noriega's nothing but a G-2. Nobody loves the G-2, not even his wife. His business is to stick his noise in other people's lives. I don't fear him. And I don't think General Torrijos fears him."
But there seems to be a note of uncertainty in his voice.
The interview with Noriega is set for 2:30. He is late. One is led to his "private sitting room" in the National Guard headquarters building through an endless maze of tiny offices, each stationed with crew-cut uniformed guards.
The sitting room is tiny, windowless. It looks more like what one would expect of Hugh Hefner's office than the head of the Panamanian National Guard.
It is lit softly by a lamp in the corner. Thick brown shag rugs cushion the floor. Several deep, comfortable, brown leather sofas line the walls. There is a rather orante mirrored bar with various kinds of whiskey, wine, liqueurs.
In the center of the room a glass coffee table displays a collection of porcelain frogs. The hi-fi is playing sensuous jazz, ballads and pop rock. The wall are lined with kitsch oil paintings of wretched children's faces - all with huge tears pouring down their faces.
His female "assistant," Marcela Toson, appears and offers tea. She is a buxom, jolly, bouncing young woman, more hostess and traveling companion, as she describes it, than anything else.
An hour goes by. Suddenly there is the sound of clicking heels, then salutes. The colonel is coming.
The door pops open, enter Col. Manuel Noriega. He has gone home to change out of his uniform. For the interview he has chosen a lacy Guaya bera, tight-fitting slacks, leather boots. His wavy hair short, wiry man. The high cheekbones and narrow eyes, the swarthy, pockmarked complexion give him a rather Mongolian look.
"Well," he says, grinning proudly an throwing open his arms to show himself off, "do I look like a monster?" A Feminist Patrio
In Panama there is a women's group that meets about once a week called the "Union Patriotica Feminina." They are women in their 30s, who all may have different political ideologies but who are devoted to one purpose - to work against the Torrijos government. So far, of the 50 or so members, two have been jailed, two exiled.
One of the members is Alma Robles, 38, who was arrested by the G-2 last year and kept in jail for nine days without charges, before released.
Roblies is the daughter of the late Rogelio Robles, former political deputy to the Assembly and was married until recently to an American. An elegant dresser with a gentle manner, she is starting a boutique in Panama City.
Two years ago she was just another housewife minding her own business.
But then in January 1975 her brothers Winston and Ivan, both lawyers, were arrested and exiled.
"There was a big group arrested at that time," she says, "bankers businessmen, radio station owners. They were all taken, one by one, from their offices and homes one morning. It was a big scandal. According to the government they had been in 'subversive activities,' which means critical of the government."
According to Robles "Nobody knew where the exiles were taken. In fact, they were taken to the airport. They were taken to the airport. They were undressed, searched, their belongings confiscated. They weren't allowed to talk to each other. Then they were put on a plane and taken to Guayaquil (Ecuador). They had done nothing but belong to political groups who met and criticized the government. What the government did was a stupid move.
"This finally," she says, "became an international scandal. Finally members of the assembly got so angry at the government that one stood up and aid 'Panama has spent so much to build an international reputation and now in one week you have ruined it!"
"You know," says Roblies shaking her head in scorn, "that's the thing about this government. They are so stupid. They don't define themselves. They aren't left or right. So how can we be against them? We're not against their ideology. We're against their methods." The Youngest Colonel
There are seven colonels in the Panamanian National Guard. "I am the youngest of all the colonels," says Manuel Noriega, "I am only 38."
he is very matter of fact, too, about how he got to be where he is. "My family," he says, "was originally Colombian. I went to the Instituto Nacional. All the people who come from there fight for their liberty and their sovereignty. It is called the Eagle's Nest. Then I went to Peru to the Military School De Chorrios."
Norieg became friends with Omar Torrijos when he came back from Peru and joined the National Guard. But their friendship was cemented when Torrijos, returning from Mexico after a brief coup against him, enterred Panama through the province of Chirriqui where Noriega was in charge. Noriega and his troops defended him. Now Noriega is the head of the National Guard, despite being the "youngest of all the colonels." Pblic Relations
At first during the interview Noriega seemed quite nervous. He is perspiring as he talks, and he leans forward on the leather sofa, trying earnestly to convey each point, to convince.
"My major function," he says, "is the security of the people so that they can sleep, that they can circulate, that they can live without fear, that they won't be kidnaped, to prevent terrorist attempts . . ." he pauses, then sits back. "Well; I think that is enough."
Noriega is aware that a lot of people don't see it that way, that many Panamanians are terrified of him and that most of the Zonians live in fear that the treaties will be ratified and they will come under Panamanian police jurisdiction.
"I know," he says, almost with pleasure, "that I have an image problem. Mine is a position that doesn't attract sympathy. But somebody must do this job. And it's a normal position in all of the armies of the world. In Panama there is only one force that has control. That's my job. But I believe that in the U.S. they paint my role as larger than it is.
Noriega is aware that he is going to have a real PR problem when he takes over jurisdiction of the Canal Zone.
"Gen. Torrijos has plans to integrate all the Zone police to work with the National Guard at the beginning," he says, "Our policy will not be one of repression.
"Our G-3," he says, "has a special psychological program to adapt to the minds of the Zonians. Zonians are different from Americans, you know. They have much different minds than the Americans. This plan is made for Zonians."
Noriega defines the Zonians' fear of him and the National Guard as "a psychological problem. They live separately away from us on an island. They don't know any Panamanians or how they think. They look at Panamanians as people apart from them as if they were from anothern country."
He gets annoyed when asked about abuses of power and whether the Zionians don't after all, have a legitimate grounds for fear.
He bristles. "All these horror stories are false."
"Isn't it true that one principle of the laws of North America is that the proof is on the accuser and not the accused?"
He looks triumphant. "I would like to know," he demands, "one real thing that happened." The Robles Encounter
"We were at dinner at the house of a friend of mine," says Alma Robles. "It was September 1976. A lawyer friend of my brother's, Eusebio Marchosky, and his wife Blanca offered to give a ride home and also offered to take Fulvia Morales.
"It was about 11 o'clock at night as were driving home when suddenly a large unmarked car with four men in plain clothes passed us, then pulled in front of us and forced us to stop. Four men got out and told us we'd have to come with them to the police department. Even though they were in plain clothes we knew who they were. They had Guardia crew cuts."
According to Robles, they took the four of them to the police department, then locked them in an empty room with bright lights and made each stand facing the corner for hours. Finally they took the three women to a detention cell. "I had almost fainted by that time," says Robles, "standing there all that time, we weren't allowed to move or even touch the wall. When they finally took us to the women's cell it was horrible.
"It was filthy, full of vomit and cockroaches and prostitutes sitting on the floor in the filth."
The next day they were taken again to the room where they saw Marchosky who, she says, obviously had been beaten. Later the police separated them, and interrogated Alma Robles for four hours.
They sent her back into the cell and for five days she stayed there, incommunicado. Only later did she learn that Marchosky had been exiled, put on a plane to Miami. His wife was released.
Alma Robles implored an officer to let her have some toilet articles, to notify her husband and family, to tell her what the charges against her were.
"The major, who was scared, told me that I was not under his orders. That I was under Noriega's orders. And he said he had been told I had lost all my rights."
Meanwhile her husband had been going to various police headquarters searching vainly for a trace of her until her photograph appeared in the paper with a pile of stolen clothes, saying she had been arrested for theft. Finally, her husband contacted a relative of hers who was a friend of President Lakas's wife. She talked to her husbad, he called Torrijos and had Alma Robles released in nine days after her arrest.
She was taken by guard to the Presidential Palace, where she was greeted by President Lakas.
"He looked ashamed," she says. "He said, 'Do me a favor and go into the bathroom and clean up. My secretary will lend you cosmetics. I don't want your husband to see you like this.'
"He told me," says Robles, "that he had called Torrijos and said 'Whether she is guilty or not, if we come to the point where we have to fight women in such a way we ought to give up the whole damn thing.'" One for the Files
"Alma Robles, huh," says Noriega, his face falling. "Alma Robles, Huuummmmmmm. Oh yes. Alma Robles. I think I remember her case."
He calls out to an aide who is standing just outside the door. There is a rapid-fire discussion of the case as he dismisses the aide with the instruction, "Get me the Alma Robles file.
"You see," he says, leaning over confidentially to fill the silence before his aide returns, "there is no rule for jailing or exiling. But many times people prefer to leave the country rather than follow the laws or to confront the rules of justice."
The aide rushes in with a massive file of papers and gives it to Noriega.
"Ah ha!" he cries gleefully. "You see, look at that. See how thick it is." And he throws the file up in the air, then catches it with grimace. "It weighs a lot," he says beaming. "It's 68 pages, see here, look. Sixty eight pages of charges. Now I have the answer for you."
he sits back, now seeming more relaxed than he has been during the whole interview. "In this time," he explains, "there were various people who were trying to make an economic sabotage of government. Alma Robles was using her house for plotting the economic overthrow of the government. And it was a problem for us for over two years. Well, you can see the complications.
"Also, like trying to provoke mercenaries to plan terrorist activities. But you must understand this is hard for me because she is a woman. But she was used by the group which wanted to make this economic overthrow."
He grows serious, very sincere.
"Since 1968 (the revolution) the Guardia has been good because it has served the majority of the population. But not of the economic and political interests. So the U.S. does not have to do anything, does not have to worry about us. Because we have been good. Fear and Loathing
"We are all afraid," says Alma Robles. "Let's face it. It would be foolhardy not tobe. But we shouldn't be influenced by our fear.We should try to control it and do something. We're not subversive. We are trying to get more people in Panama to overcome their fear, to talk more openly, to come to meeting. We're taking advantage of the lull in the last few months since they want the treaties ratified. We do have a little freedom to meet publicly, to talk on the radio. A lot of people have taken courage to see others meeting. We don't have that much time left. the majority of people are against the government. But now they can show it." The 'Monster's Cave'
Manuel Noriega is not too happy with the direction the conversation has taken. He gets up and points to a door. "Here," he says, "let me show you my office."
He leads the way into a large room with fake stone walls painted in a cave-like pattern. The stereo is playing much louder in this room, Panamanian pop rock music. There is anenormous mural of Noriega parachuting out of an airplane. There are around the room. A huge banquet table with ornate carved chairs dominates the office. It is piled high with bottles of liquor and boxes of candy. "This," he says, "is the monsters cave." Curled up in a cushy leather chair is a very pretty, buxom, young Panamanian woman in tight-fitting jeans and another, perched on the edge of the chair at the table and dressed similarly. "And, these," grins Noriega," are my secretaries."
He obviously wants to change the subject to a lighter vein. Hobbies.
"Well," he says. "I like to read, I like to divert myself, i jog five miles every day and I like to dance." Then with a leer, "There are other things I like to do but I don't want you to put that in the paper.
"I collect art I love paintings of children. And women too," he says with a laugh. "I'm a Buddist. I started studying Buddhism four years ago. And I have a black belt in judo. I'm a vegetarian, too.
"For philosophical reasons," he says, "I don't of believe men should eat the flesh of other animals.
"So you see," he says triumphantly." "I can't possibly be a monster eating up the Zonians."