Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the Panamanian strongman and onetime American ally who was toppled from power in a 1989 U.S. invasion and who spent more than two decades imprisoned on drug-dealing and conspiracy convictions, died May 29 at a hospital in Panama City. He was most likely 83.
The cause was not announced, but Gen. Noriega had been in intensive care at a hospital for months after complications from surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela announced the death.
A career military man, Gen. Noriega led the Panama Defense Forces from 1983 until President George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion on Dec. 20, 1989, which followed months of deteriorating relations between Panama and the United States.
Gen. Noriega was a polarizing figure for decades after he was led in chains from Panama by U.S. marshals on Jan. 4, 1990, to a federal prison in Miami.
His opponents said Gen. Noriega was a brute who killed his opponents and hid millions of dollars in gains from drug and other corruption payments. Retired U.S. Army general and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell once described Gen. Noriega as “pure evil.”
Gen. Noriega consistently rejected such charges, which he said were trumped up by opponents. He claimed the Bush administration moved against him after he refused to help American policy in Central America intended to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and halt a civil war in El Salvador.
“Why, after being the man the United States could count on, did I become the enemy?” Gen. Noriega asked bitterly in the jailhouse interviews this reporter conducted with him that led to his 1994 memoir, “America’s Prisoner.” “Because I said no. No to allowing the United States to run a school for dictators [the U.S. military’s School of the Americas] any longer in Panamanian territory. No to the request that Panama be used as a staging base for the Salvadoran death squads and the Nicaraguan contras. Lots of no’s.”
Before his fall from favor, U.S. officials considered Gen. Noriega a reliable protector of stability in Panama. As early as his student days in the 1950s, he was an eager informant for the U.S. intelligence services.
Bush justified the invasion by saying, among other things, that the Panamanian leader had declared war on the United States first, that he had made Panama a haven for drug dealers and that he had endangered open shipping channels through the Panama Canal. Gen. Noriega’s opponents also charged he had ordered the killing of a prominent political opponent; international monitors, including former president Jimmy Carter, denounced Panamanian elections in the spring of 1989 as fraudulent.
More than 25,000 U.S. troops launched the Dec. 20 invasion, bombarding key Panamanian military installations, destroying the headquarters, and killing and injuring people in a poor Panama City neighborhood. Gen. Noriega eluded capture before seeking refuge days later at the Vatican Embassy in the Panamanian capital. Soldiers surrounded the diplomatic building and blasted rock music at a deafening volume.
Gen. Noriega claimed that the music had not bothered him but that it drove priests inside the compound to distraction. With no chance of escape, he surrendered to U.S. forces on Jan. 3, 1990.
That signaled the end of the invasion. The death toll among Panamanians was never clear but ranged from several hundred, according to the United States, to several thousand, according to human rights groups that criticized the invasion. Twenty-five American soldiers died.
Gen. Noriega was classified as a U.S. prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions, thereby entitled to visits from the International Red Cross, continued use of his military uniform and recognition of his status as commander — and only member — of the long-defunct Panamanian military, which was disbanded after the U.S. invasion.
In 1992, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison on a drug-trafficking and conspiracy conviction after a 10-month trial in U.S. District Court in Miami. Although the Bush administration used the drug charges as justification for the invasion, the proof was surprisingly weak.
The case against Gen. Noriega rested on two dozen convicted cocaine felons, all of whom received reduced sentences for testifying. One was Colombian cocaine kingpin Carlos Lehder, who provided hearsay as evidence. And like most of the other witnesses, he had never met nor had dealings with the general.
The general’s life in prison was austere. His housing at the medium-security Federal Detention Center south of downtown Miami was a spare, two-room cinder-block cell under surveillance. He received occasional visits from friends, members of the clergy and his family, including his wife, Felicidad Sieiro de Noriega, and his three daughters, Thays, Sandra and Lorena, all of whom survive him.
Gen. Noriega’s U.S. sentence was reduced to 30 years after three former U.S. officials spoke on his behalf at a sentence-reduction hearing. Just as he was granted parole for good behavior and scheduled for release in 2007, U.S. officials agreed to a French extradition request based on a money-laundering charge.
The U.S. Supreme Court authorized Gen. Noriega’s transfer to France in April 2010. The following year, France granted his extradition to Panama, where he had been convicted in absentia for human rights crimes.
Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno was born in Panama City, most likely on Feb. 11, 1934, although the year of his birth was a matter of controversy. Gen. Noriega had once listed the year as 1938 and never cleared up the discrepancy.
His father was an accountant in Panama City. Gen. Noriega said his mother, a single woman, died when he was 4 after taking him to her home village in Darien province near Panama’s border with Colombia. He was left in the care of his godmother, whom he knew as Mama Luisa.
He attended a military school in Peru, encouraged by a half brother, Luis Carlos, who served at the Panamanian Embassy there. After graduating in 1962, Gen. Noriega returned to Panama and had a chance meeting with Omar Torrijos, the future commander of Panama’s armed forces, who brought him into the military.
Then-Lt. Noriega came to prominence during a coup plot in December 1969 against Torrijos, who was on an official trip to Mexico. He maneuvered to sneak Torrijos back into the country on a private plane. The coup fizzled, and the young officer was rewarded for his loyalty, soon becoming chief of military intelligence.
The CIA station chief in Panama in the mid-1980s, Donald Winters, said in an interview that the U.S. government regularly paid Gen. Noriega as an intelligence asset. Gen. Noriega signed his own name for receiving the payments, something Winters had never witnessed before. Winters, one of the former officials appearing on behalf of Gen. Noriega at his 1994 sentence-reduction hearing, died in 2001.
Gen. Noriega became de facto leader of the country in 1983, two years after the death of Torrijos, whose plane plowed into mountain on a routine domestic flight. The general’s opponents charged he was responsible for the crash, but U.S. investigators saw no evidence of sabotage.
Gen. Noriega said during interviews for his memoir that he knew he was mocked and ridiculed by opponents, not the least for his acne-scarred complexion, and over charges of being a murderous dictator. He said that he could do nothing about personal attacks but denied that he was a dictator and said that any killings took place during legitimate military activities. He said he never knowingly killed or ordered anyone killed.
The Reagan administration sought Gen. Noriega’s help in 1983 after the United States invaded Grenada, where a Marxist-led coup had toppled the government. Gen. Noriega, as a U.S. intermediary, negotiated with Cuban leader Fidel Castro to calm tensions and avoid a battle between U.S. forces and Cuban troops who were building an airport runway.
Gen. Noriega faced his first major criticism in the United States in 1987, when the New York Times published a report that he had orchestrated the killing of his onetime ally Hugo Spadafora.
But the central evidence, provided by Gen. Noriega’s opponents in Panama, was a purported intercept by the U.S. National Security Agency in 1985 of Gen. Noriega ordering Spadafora’s death in a telephone call to the Panamanian jungle during a vacation in France. The claim has since been categorically denied by U.S. officials, who said such an intercept was technically impossible at the time.
Gen. Noriega’s legacy as a dictator and a convicted drug dealer continues to be debated, in part because of the major role the United States played in creating and shaping the destiny of Panama.
“He rose from illegitimacy and poverty to become a corrupt and illegitimate dictator,” said Robert Pastor, who had extensive contacts with Gen. Noriega as national security adviser for Latin America during the Carter administration. Pastor, who died in 2014, said Gen. Noriega’s “provocative behavior also brought out the worst in the United States.”
Eisner is a former Washington Post editor.
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