Manuel Antonio Noriega, the brash former dictator of Panama and sometime ally of the United States whose ties to drug trafficking led to his ouster in 1989 in what was then the largest U.S. military action since the Vietnam War, died Monday night in Panama City. He was 83.
President Juan Carlos Varela of Panama announced Noriega’s death on Twitter early Tuesday morning.
Varela’s post read, “The death of Manuel A. Noriega closes a chapter in our history; his daughters and his relatives deserve to bury him in peace.”
Noriega died around 11 p.m. at Santo Tomás Hospital, an employee there confirmed. No official cause was immediately given.
Noriega had been in intensive care since March 7 after complications developed from surgery to remove what his lawyer described as a benign brain tumor. His daughters told reporters at the hospital in March that he had sustained a brain hemorrhage after the procedure. He had been granted house arrest in January to prepare for the procedure.
His medical problems came on the heels of a legal odyssey that had begun with the invasion and led to prison terms in the United States, France and finally Panama. While imprisoned abroad he suffered strokes, hypertension and other ailments, his lawyers said.
After returning to Panama on Dec. 11, 2011, he began serving long sentences for murder, embezzlement and corruption in connection with his rule during the 1980s.
It was an inglorious homecoming for a man who had been known for brandishing a machete while making defiant nationalist speeches and living a lavish, libertine life off drug-trade riches, complete with luxurious mansions, cocaine-fueled parties and voluminous collections of antique guns. It was a quirky life as well: He liked to display his teddy bears dressed as paratroopers.
Playing Both Sides
Noriega, who became the de facto leader of the country by promoting himself to full general of the armed forces in 1983, had a decades-long, head-spinning relationship with the United States, shifting from cooperative ally and informant for American drug and intelligence agencies to shady adversary, selling secrets to political enemies of the United States in the Western Hemisphere and tipping off drug cartels. Whose side he was on was often hard to tell.
It was an awkward embrace that befitted the history of American and Panamanian relations since the United States built the Panama Canal early in the 20th century. The United States continued to operate the canal — and govern a strip of territory alongside it — for eight decades before turning it over to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999.
In the 1990 book “In the Time of the Tyrants,” a chronicle of the Noriega years, the journalists Richard M. Koster and Guillermo Sánchez Borbón gave a startling example of Noriega’s double-dealing. While providing secrets about Cuba to the United States, they wrote, Noriega sold Fidel Castro thousands of Panamanian passports, at $5,000 each, for use by Cuban secret agents and possibly agents of other Soviet bloc nations.
The authors estimated that his illicit gains came to at least $772 million. (The White House put his personal fortune at $200 million to $300 million in the months before his ouster.)
“He craved power and became a tyrant,” Koster and Sánchez wrote in laying out Noriega’s ultimate undoing. “He craved wealth and became a criminal. And the careers came in conflict.”
Noriega’s two-facedness was known to the U.S. officials. But they saw him as helping them maintain influence in Panama at a time of leftist uprisings in Central America. He provided, for one thing, an important listening post in the region.
Plucked From Power
He grew more belligerent, however, and by 1989 U.S. patience had run out. Lawmakers in Washington, some of them worried about the coming turnover of the canal to Panama, began asking more questions about his ties to drug traffickers. Opposition in Panama had also grown, largely ignited by the torture and murder in 1985 of Dr. Hugo Spadafora, a longtime critic who had publicly accused Noriega of being in league with Colombian drug cartels.
Noriega turned more violent toward political opponents, setting his feared anti-riot units — his “Dobermans” — on demonstrators.
The U.S. Senate in 1986 overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling on Panama to remove Noriega from the Panamanian Defense Forces pending an investigation of charges of corruption, election fraud, murder and drug trafficking. The next year, after Congress cut off military and economic aid, Panama defaulted on its foreign debt payments, and its economy contracted by a startling 20 percent.
In 1988, Noriega was indicted in Miami and Tampa, Florida, on federal narcotics-trafficking and money-laundering charges. He was accused of turning Panama into a shipping platform for South American cocaine destined for the United States, and allowing drug proceeds to be hidden in Panamanian banks.
Noriega responded by organizing demonstrations in Panama against the United States. Gripping a machete as he spoke to a crowd, he declared, “Not one step back!” The slogan began appearing on billboards throughout Panama City.
There was a failed coup in 1988. The next year, Noriega annulled the results of Panama’s presidential election, ratcheting up pressure on the United States to take action. After another failed coup, in 1989, he anointed himself “maximum leader,” and the national assembly declared war on the United States.
Then, on Dec. 16, 1989, Panamanian troops shot and killed an unarmed American soldier in Panama City, wounded another and arrested and beat a third soldier whose wife they threatened with sexual assault.
“That was enough,” President George H.W. Bush said in announcing the invasion, which included more than 27,000 troops.
A White House statement as the invasion got underway said the United States had acted “to protect American lives, restore the democratic process, preserve the integrity of the Panama Canal treaties and apprehend Manuel Noriega.” Political commentators assigned other motives, including a way for Bush to shake off perceptions of weakness; his poll numbers rose significantly after the invasion.
Panamanian forces were overwhelmed as Noriega escaped into hiding, surfacing days later on Dec. 24 at the Vatican Embassy in Panama City. Twenty-three American service members were killed and more than 300 wounded in the invasion; casualties among Panamanians have been disputed, with the Panamanian government at the time estimating that several hundred soldiers and civilians had died while some human rights groups insist the toll was much higher.
U.S. troops descended on the embassy, and a standoff followed. For a time, U.S. forces blasted heavy metal music (including Van Halen’s “Panama”) to torment Noriega and prevent reporters with directional microphones from hearing conversations between military and Vatican officials. He surrendered on Jan. 3, 1990, and was flown to jail in Florida, leaving behind a new president sworn in on a U.S. military base and a new era for Panama.
A Strongman’s Ascent
Manuel Antonio Noriega was born in a Panama City slum on Feb. 11, 1934 — or was he? The date has been in dispute. In a court hearing in France in June 2010, he gave his birth year as 1936, but then corrected himself, saying it was 1934, the generally accepted date. Legal documents have listed it as 1938, and Noriega had been said to lie about his age.
His father was a public accountant and his mother a cook or laundress, depending on the account, but for murky reasons they were gone from his life in early childhood. He told interviewers that he had been raised by a godmother. He attended the Instituto Nacional, Panama’s best public high school, and in a yearbook he named his life’s ambitions: to be a psychiatrist and president of Panama.
When his plans for medical school did not work out, a connection in government helped him get a scholarship to a military academy in Peru. On his return, he began rising in the National Guard.
In the late 1960s, he came under the wing of Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera, a dictator who would sign a 1977 treaty in which the United States would agree to cede control of the canal and the American property alongside it in December 1999. Noriega became a loyal aide to Torrijos, orchestrating the abuse and imprisonment of opponents and tightening relationships with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence.
After Torrijos died in a plane crash in western Panama in 1981, Noriega maneuvered to take over the National Guard. Ascending to the rank of general in 1983, he effectively became the country’s strongman, even though a civilian was president. An early step was to unite the various guard units under the Panama Defense Forces.
He took on the moniker “El Man,” but the nickname that endured among his detractors was “Pineapple Face,” owing to his pockmarked skin. (A judge in California in October 2014 dismissed a lawsuit filed by Noriega’s representatives protesting the use of his likeness and the “Pineapple Face” moniker in a “Call of Duty” video game.)
Embracing his power, Noriega rigged elections to favor his handpicked candidates. He strengthened ties to drug traffickers. But he also sought bonds with the United States.
Even as American concerns abou his cartel relationships grew, Noriega reached out to the White House aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North during the Iran-contra affair, meeting with him in September 1986 in London, according to notebooks of North’s obtained by the National Security Archive through the Freedom of Information Act.
North was a central player in a Reagan administration scheme to sabotage the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua by secretly selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to finance rightist Nicaraguan rebels, known as the contras. Congress had banned funding them.
Noriega offered to assassinate Sandinista leaders or sabotage them in exchange for North’s help in repairing Noriega’s deteriorating image in Washington. A congressional report said the sabotage plan had been approved, but there is no evidence that it was carried out. In any event, it was too late for image rehabilitation; the U.S. invasion was around the corner.
Inmate No. 41586
After he was stripped of his rank by Panama’s new civilian government in 1990 and taken to Florida to face charges, Noriega’s booking photo, disseminated around the world, became emblematic of his fall. It showed him glum in a brown T-shirt holding a placard with the words “U.S. Marshal, Miami, FL,” reduced to federal prisoner 41586.
Noriega was convicted in April 1992 and sentenced to 40 years in prison. He insisted all along that the trial and charges were a farce.
“I accuse George Herbert Walker Bush of exercising his power and authority to influence and subvert the American judicial system in order to convict me,” he said in a two-hour courtroom speech.
His sentence was reduced by 10 years, and he was later declared a prisoner of war, allowing him access to a telephone, more visiting hours and even a small salary, among other perks.
But while he was in prison in the United States, Panama tried him in absentia for the execution of soldiers in the failed 1989 coup attempt. And in July 1999, France tried him in absentia on money-laundering charges, accusing him and his wife, Felicidad Sieiro de Noriega, of channeling $3 million in drug profits to banks.
His lawyers argued that the money was payment by the Central Intelligence Agency, but the couple were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The United States had intended to release Noriega on parole in September 2007 after reducing his sentence by half for good behavior. But after a protracted extradition fight, he was sent to France in April 2010 for another trial on the money-laundering charges. Again he was convicted.
He was sentenced this time to seven years in prison in France, but he was eligible for parole much sooner than that. Panama requested his extradition, and after more legal tussling, he was flown home in December 2011 to serve 20 years for the disappearances of political opponents in the 1980s.
Noriega is survived by his wife and three daughters, Lorena, Sandra and Thays Noriega.
While incarcerated in the United States, Noriega wrote “America’s Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega” (1997, with Peter Eisner). In the book, he expressed frustration over his captors.
“No one can avoid the judgment of history,” he wrote. “I only ask to be judged on the same scale of treachery and infamy of my enemies.”
Yet in June 2015, in an interview in prison with Panamanian television, he was more conciliatory, leaving people, once again, to guess about the real Noriega.
“I want to close the cycle of the military era as the last commander of that group,” he said, “asking for forgiveness.”