MEXICO CITY — Manuel Noriega, the onetime military
dictator of Panama who also moonlighted as a CIA spy and successful
drug-trafficking money launderer, was flown home Sunday after two
decades in U.S. and French prisons and faced yet more jail time in
Noriega, 77, was extradited from France, where he was
convicted of laundering several million dollars through Paris real
estate, and placed under heavy guard on a flight to Panama City.
Television footage from the Panama airport Sunday
evening showed a stooped man covered in a hooded parka arriving and
being loaded onto a wheelchair for transport to the Renacer (“Rebirth”)
“Gen. Noriega wanted to return and face the charges
against him,” one of his attorneys, Julio Berrios, said in a crush at
the airport, as a small knot of angry relatives of Noriega’s victims
shouted in the background.
Noriega returned to Panama for the first time since
the 1989 U.S. invasion of that strategic isthmus nation — at the time,
the largest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War — wrested him
For decades, Noriega had functioned as an ally of
Washington, recruited by the CIA in the 1960s, serving as a secret envoy
to Cuba’s Fidel Castro. He operated at times to support leftist
movements in Latin America, at other times to support U.S. efforts to
Eventually he also started receiving millions of
dollars from Colombia’s notorious Medellin cartel to help protect
shipments of tons of cocaine to the U.S., a relationship that finally
led to his downfall and the decision of then President George H.W. Bush
to invade Panama.
Noriega’s return has unleashed a wide debate in
Panama, forcing citizens to relive dark days of his regime. Noriega
stole elections, sent out thugs called Dignity Battalions to beat up
opponents, and had enemies jailed and killed.
Some in Panama think he’s been punished enough, while
others remain adamant that he spend the rest of his days a prisoner. A
new law would allow him to serve time under house arrest because of his
advanced age; some relatives of his victims angrily oppose that.
“We have to be ready for all the possibilities in all
aspects,” Panama Foreign Minister Roberto Henriquez said. “Noriega
inspires very big emotions, and Noriega’s life could very well be at
risk in Panama.”
Some of the speculation in Panama has centered on
whether Noriega might spill the beans on the illicit fortunes amassed by
leading Panamanians. Yet it is unclear whether the man whom enemies
once called Pineapple Face because of his pockmarked skin retains any
credibility or relevancy to make accusations with substance.
“He represents the past and a lesson that we should
learn of what should never happen here again,” Milton Henriquez, a
leading politician, told reporters Sunday night.
There is something very time-warpy about the Noriega
story, a throwback to Cold War-era politics, when U.S. governments were
financing proxy wars against leftists and Panama was a kind of Central
Compared to most Latin and Caribbean dictators,
Noriega has spent an inordinate amount of time in prison. Jean-Claude
“Baby Doc” Duvalier, for example, was forced into exile — along the
French Riviera — in 1986 and never went to jail. He returned home to
Haiti in January and remains a free man. Chile’s Augusto Pinochet evaded
international efforts to prosecute him, and he died of old age at his
Panama today is a very different place from what
Noriega left. Its skyline is full of skyscrapers and luxury condos, and
much of what was once the U.S.-run Panama Canal Zone has given way to
huge development projects. Yet Panama may be even more of a haven for
the kind of money-laundering that Noriega was convicted of. U.S. law
enforcement officials say its sprawling free-trade zone provides perfect
cover for launderers using bogus commerce to hide, move and launder
billions of dollars in illicit drug proceeds.
And President Ricardo Martinelli, a conservative
millionaire, runs a government widely criticized as corrupt. According
to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, he has shown
undemocratic tendencies, including a disturbing interest in spying on
Noriega was convicted in U.S. courts on
drug-trafficking charges and served 17 years in prison there, before
being sent last year to face charges in France. In Panama, he was
convicted in absentia of killing Hugo Spadafora, a dissident who exposed
Noriega’s drug-trafficking operations. Spadafora’s decapitated body was
discovered near Panama’s border with Costa Rica in 1985.
Noriega has been sentenced to three 20-year sentences for the slayings of Spadafora and other opponents.
Noriega “should pay for the damage and horror committed against the people of Panama,” Martinelli said.
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