Obituary: Manuel Noriega

Military dictator of Panama with close links to the White House who was overthrown by a US invasion


Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno, politician and military officer

Born: 11th February 1934.

Died; 29th May 2017

Manuel Noriega, who has died aged 83, was the strongman military officer who was the de facto ruler of Panama from 1983 to 1989. Throughout these years, he was closely involved with the CIA and the White House, allowing weapons to pass through Panama for use against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, and supplying information on Central American guerrilla movements. At the same time, he was linked to the Medellín drug cartel and the drug lord Pablo Escobar in Colombia, who used Panama as a staging post for trafficking to the US.

Although Noriega was convinced that his links with the CIA and Washington would protect him, by the time of the 1988 US presidential elections his name and reputation had become an embarrassment to them. A committee of the US Senate accused him of establishing, with US connivance, the “first narco-kleptocracy in the western hemisphere”. He was indicted in the US on drug trafficking charges but would not hand himself in.

His refusal to accept the results of the 1989 elections in Panama, which gave victory to an anti-Noriega candidate, Guillermo Endara, and the violence his followers used against the politicians who had won the vote, proved the last straw. The newly elected George HW Bush ordered the invasion of Panama, and the arrest of Noriega.

In December 1989 some 25,000 US troops – the largest number deployed since the war in Vietnam – took over Panama City. Hundreds of Panamanian soldiers and civilians were killed by bombings and in combat. Noriega fled to the Vatican embassy for asylum, but surrendered after several days of a tense stand-off. He was taken in chains to Florida to face trial. Although the United Nations General Assembly condemned the US action as a gross violation of international law, and there were protests around the world at this latest example of high-handed intervention by the US in Latin America, Noriega received little popular support in his own country.

In September 1992 he was sentenced to 40 years in prison in the US for drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. Imprisoned in Miami, he was treated as a prisoner of war, and accorded the privileges due to his rank as a four-star general, including a suite of rooms. In jail, he told a British journalist: “I have not changed my ideals, my patriotism, my nationalism, my concept of the US. I am not changed. I regret nothing.”

Born in Panama City, the son of Ricaurte Noriega, an accountant, and his maid, Maria Feliz Morena, Manuel was brought up in a foster home from the age of five. He joined the army as a cadet at the age of 14: since he had both African and indigenous blood, this was one of the few institutions in Panama that could offer him social advancement. He acquired the nickname “Pineapple Face”, his heavily pockmarked features the result of a childhood illness.

Part of his military training was carried out in the US, where he was recruited by the CIA. In 1967 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Panamanian National Guard, and in the years that followed became a supporter of the head of the army, Omar Torrijos, who appointed him chief of military intelligence.

Following Torrijos’s death in a plane crash in 1981, which some claim Noriega orchestrated, he became the head of the renamed National Defence Forces and thus the most powerful man in Panama, where the elected president and congress did not have any real power. His mixed race background initially gave him a popular base of support, but he was opposed by the traditional political parties.

Under pressure from the US, Noriega permitted presidential elections in 1984, but the results were manipulated so that his placeman, Nicolás Barletta, was adjudged to have won. In the 1989 elections, Endara’s victory was so decisive that even Noriega’s placeman accepted it. Nevertheless Endara and his vice-president, Guillermo Ford, were badly beaten up when they tried to hold a parade claiming victory, and Noriega declared the election null and void. This was the beginning of the end for him.

Although Noriega was due to be released from prison in the US after serving 17 years of his sentence, he faced charges of money laundering in France, and so in 2010 was flown directly from jail in Florida to Paris . This time he was sentenced to seven years. However, he was handed over to Panama a year later as he was also a wanted man there. After several years in El Renacer prison, near Panama City, he was released under house arrest early this year for an operation to remove a brain tumour.

He is survived by his wife, Felicidad, and three daughters, Thays, Sandra and Lorena.

– (Guardian Service)