Manuel Noriega, ex-military ruler of Panama, dies at 83

Former ruler of Panama was held in medically induced coma after brain surgery in March.

Manuel Noriega, Panama’s former ruler, has died aged 83, the country’s President, Juan Carlos Varela, announced on Twitter. 

Noriega was the country’s military ruler from 1983 to 1989, when he was removed from power by the United States during its invasion of Panama.

“The death of Manuel Antonio Noriega closes a chapter in our history; his daughters and their families deserve a burial in peace,” Varela said. 

Noriega was held in a medically induced coma after suffering brain haemorrhaging in March. The haemorrhage occurred after Noriega underwent surgery to have a tumour removed from his brain.

During his rule, Noriega initially positioned Panama as a US asset in a region that was becoming increasingly hostile to Washington’s interests.

Born to a poor family with Colombian roots in 1934, Noriega was a career soldier, receiving his training in Peru and the US [Reuters]
Born to a poor family with Colombian roots in 1934, Noriega was a career soldier, receiving his training in Peru and the US [Reuters]

He was commissioned into the Panama National Guard in 1967, and in 1968 promoted to lieutenant.

Noriega rose swiftly in the armed forces, becoming a key ally of General Omar Torrijos during a military coup in 1968. As the de facto leader from 1968 to 1981, Torrijos relied heavily on Noriega’s network of loyal soldiers.

CIA informant

Noriega was soon promoted to head of Panama’s secret police, a role which brought him into close contact with the CIA.

The US intelligence agency had a vested interest in protecting the strategic trade route of the Panama Canal, which was under US administration until 1977.

Noriega soon became a regular informant for the Americans and was rewarded with an estimated $320,000, although he claimed at his trial in 1990 he was a prize asset that cost the CIA millions.

Throughout the 1970s, he shook off accusations that he was orchestrating the disappearances of Panamanian opposition figures.

Noriega takes part in a conference at the Atlapa centre in Panama City in 1989 [Alberto Lowe/Reuters]
Noriega takes part in a conference at the Atlapa centre in Panama City in 1989 [Alberto Lowe/Reuters]

After Torrijos’s mysterious death in a plane crash in 1981, the new military ruler, Ruben Dario Paredes del Rio, consolidated Noriega’s power base by promoting him as the head of the security services.

Within a short time, power had effectively concentrated in Noriega’s hands. In 1983, he succeeded Paredes as the de facto military ruler.

During the Reagan presidency in the 1980s, the US began relying heavily on Noreiga as an ally against Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

1989 surrender

In 1987, a former chief-of-staff who had worked under Noriega accused his former boss of corruption and electoral fraud, as well as being behind the plane crash in which Torrijos died.

The accusations triggered huge demonstrations in Panama.

Noriega defiantly stayed in power, with critics maintaining that the country had become a hub for Latin America’s drug trade, particularly in helping Colombia’s powerful Medellin cartel in laundering drug money.

In December 1989, US President George Bush ordered a US marine invasion to topple Noriega, who had become a liability and an embarrassment to US interests.

Noriega sought refuge in the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Panama City.

One US tactic to flush him out was to play deafening music non-stop outside the building. Noriega finally surrendered on January 3, 1990.

Prison terms

Noriega was flown to the US, with prisoner-of-war status, to face charges of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering.

In 2007, Noriega completed his 17 years of confinement in a Miami federal jail, but he was not a free man.

After completing his 17-year sentence, Noriega was extradited to France and received a seven-year sentence for money laundering.

But Panama wanted Noriega to return to face in-absentia convictions and two prison terms of 20 years for embezzlement, corruption and murder of opponents, including military commander Moises Giroldi, who led a failed rebellion on October 3, 1989, and Hugo Spadafora, whose decapitated body was found in a mailbag on the border with Costa Rica in 1985.

France approved Noriega's extradition to Panama in 2011 [Reuters]
France approved Noriega’s extradition to Panama in 2011 [Reuters]

In mid-2011, France approved his extradition to Panama.

Despite amassing great wealth, Noriega had worked hard to cultivate an image of a man of the people. He lived in a modest, two-storey home in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood in Panama City that stood in stark contrast with the opulent mansions customary among Latin American dictators.

“He would only say ‘hello’ very respectfully,” said German Sanchez, who lived next door for 16 years. “You may think what you like of Noriega, but we can’t say he was anything but respectful toward his neighbours.”

“The humble, the poor, the blacks, they are the utmost authority,” Noriega said in one speech.

Asking for forgiveness

While some resentment lingers over the US invasion, Noriega has so few supporters in modern-day Panama that attempts to auction off his old home attracted no bidders and the government decided to demolish decaying building down.

Late in life, the ex-leader essentially had zero influence over his country from behind bars.

“He is not a figure with political possibilities,” University of Panama sociologist Raul Leis said in 2008. “Even though there’s a small sector that yearns for the Noriega era, it is not a representative figure in the country.”

Noriega broke a long silence in June 2015 when he made a statement from prison on Panamanian television in which he asked forgiveness of those harmed by his rule.

“I feel like as Christians we all have to forgive,” he said, reading from a handwritten statement. “The Panamanian people have already overcome this period of dictatorship.”

But for the most part Noriega stayed mum about elite military and civilian associates who thrived on the corruption that he helped instill and which still plagues the Central American nation of some 3.9 million people, a favoured transshipment point for drugs and a haven for money laundering.

“He kept his mouth shut and died for the sins of others,” Koster, the biographer, said in a 2014 interview. “Nobody else ever went to prison.”

Meanwhile, families of more than 100 who were killed or disappeared during his rule are still seeking justice.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies