‘HE MAY be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Franklin D Roosevelt’s description of Nicaraguan dictator Somoza would later be miscited by head of the CIA William Casey in the 1980s. It was a most apt description of the Panamanian dictator and drug dealer Manuel Noriega who was extradited by the US to France on Monday.
For the last 21 years he has been Inmate 38699-079 in the care of the Miami prison system, following his overthrow and arrest in 1989-90 by the very US administration that had for years courted him as a paid agent of the CIA and sometime reliable regional ally, not least in allowing Panama’s use as a conduit for US cash and weapons for the Contras as Ronald Reagan sought to undermine the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The US turned a blind eye to his many excesses, ranging from working with the Medellin drug cartel, to smuggling guns, laundering money and brutalising or assassinating opponents.
Five US administrations, starting with Lyndon Johnson’s, had carried on normal relations with the military governments of Noriega or his predecessors. Whether it was the desire to conclude a treaty to assure the security of the Panama canal, find a haven for Iran’s shah, obtain intelligence on Cuba, or guarantee a base for monitoring regional events, some other policy goal always seemed to keep the US from addressing Panama’s problems.
When it did, George Bush Snr invading in 1989, dubiously citing “imminent” danger to US citizens, some 200-plus Panamanians would die in an operation that culminated in the bizarre siege of the papal nunciature where Noriega had taken refuge. US forces memorably bombarded the building with earshattering rock music - including I Fought the Law by the Clash – to get him to surrender. He was taken to the US, tried, and sentenced to 30 years on multiple charges, including drug trafficking. He got out after 17 years for good behaviour.
Now the French will get their chance. They claim Noriega laundered €5.3 million in drug profits by buying luxury apartments in Paris. Although convicted in absentia, France agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited. But Noriega is fighting all the way. He claims the French can’t try him both because he was declared a PoW by a Miami judge and because as president of Panama he had sovereign immunity. Panama is also waiting in line should France’s case fail. One way or another, it is not likely one of Latin America’s most obnoxious and brutal sons will have a quiet retirement.