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Manuel Noriega


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Manuel A. Noriega – Friend or Foe?

Manuel Antonio Noriega Morena was born on February 11th, 1934 in Panama City, Panama to a poor accountant and his maid. (Tyle) At the age of five, his parents allowed a school teacher to adopt him. As a teen, he attended a well known high school, the National Institute, in preparation of becoming a doctor. During his time here, he participated in various anti-US protests. When high school was over, his family could not afford to send him to medical school so instead, Noriega accepted a scholarship to attend the Chorrios Military Academy in Peru. He graduated in 1962 with a degree in engineering. For the next few years, Noriega trained obstinately at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia becoming highly decorated in intelligence, counterintelligence, and jungle operations and then went on to take a course in psychological operations (Psyops) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

In 1967, Noriega returned to Panama and joined the Panama National Guard. One year later, he was promoted to lieutenant. That same year, the leader of Panama, Amulfo Arias was removed from power by the military a short 11 days after winning his second election. Many speculate Noriega played a major part of this military uprising. Control of government power was assumed by Colonel Omar Torrijos. Torrijos already had a great deal of respect for Noriega but one incident sealed the deal. In 1969, Torrijos was out of the country, a group of guerillas tried to seize control of the capital. Torrijos needed to get back into the country quickly and safely. Noriega planned for Torrijos plane to land on a runway with no lights. Noriega got cars to line up along the dark runway and turn their lights on so the plane could land discreetly yet safely. Torrijo landed and with the help of Noriega’s troupes, Torrijo effortlessly reclaimed the capital. This was the sparking point of Noriega’s military career. In Panama, Torrijos promoted him to lieutenant colonel and also appointed him chief of Military Intelligence, making him one of the most powerful men in Panama, second only to Torrijo himself. During his time as chief, Noriega carried out many callous operations against guerillas in Western Panama and was thought to have coordinated the “disappearance” of several political opponents, earning him the reputation as the most feared man in the country. Noriega’s career in the U.S. also blossomed; he became even deeper involved in American intelligence. In 1971 he went to Havana, Cuba on behalf of the President, Richard Nixon. His job was to negotiate the release several men captured when two American ships were seized by Fidel Castro. At this time, Noriega was already involved in drug deals in Cuba and unbeknownst to the U.S., was also employed by Fidel as a spy.

The next big career advancement for Noriega came in 1981 when Omar Torrijos died in a suspicious plane crash. (Tyle) A former associate of Noriega claims that the actual cause for the accident was a bomb planted by Noriega himself, though no one has ever been able to prove it. Control of Panama was strewn upon several military commanders before it was permanently seized by Noriega in 1982. Less than a year later, Noriega promoted himself to General, taking command of the Panamanian army. He now had complete control over the militia and the leadership of Panama and was unwilling to return power back over to civilians. He took over the country’s customs, in and export traffic, immigration and airport operations, along with setting up other very lucrative ventures under the control over the militia. Not only did he refuse to relinquish power back to the citizens, but abused his power to commit a plethora of crimes such as election fraud, money laundering, espionage and even murder.

In 1988 the U.S. government asked Noriega to step down as leader in Panama even going as far as offering him $2 million dollars to go into exile in Spain. When he refused, it was finally set in stone – The U.S. Government was going to have to use brute force to bring Noriega down. The planning began and the wheels were set in motion for the fall of Manuel Noriega.

Noriega was initially a strong ally of the U.S. and was on the CIA payroll from the late 1950’s until 1986. In 1983, when Noriega promoted himself to General, he took the U.S. off his trail of crime and proved once again to be a noteworthy ally as he allowed the U.S. to set up listening posts in Panama and aided the pro-American forces by acting as a middle man between American money and weapons. Relations had turned extremely tense between Noriega and the U.S. government, due to several allegations, the most vital one being that he was spying on the U.S. for Cuba under Fidel Castro. For over 30 years, Noriega had been working as a double agent, collecting a paycheck from the Unites States government while in parallel working for other communist governments turning over highly classified U.S. intelligence resources to Cuba, aiding the sale of restricted U.S. technology to Soviet countries and selling weapons to Cuban guerillas. By the late 1980’s his actions were becoming increasingly unacceptable to American law enforcement. “There are over 1000 incidents of harassment by the Panamanian forces between 1983 and 1989.” (Donnelly) The wife of a marine was wounded when a PDF fired a shot through her window. There were two school buses detained by the PDF for over two hours with no reason. Then on December 15, 1989 Noriega’s forces shot and killed a U.S. marine stationed in Panama City. This was the last straw. As far as the U.S. was concerned, Noriega had just declared war with the U.S. On December 20, 1989, U.S. authorities put out an order for his arrest and “13,000 American troops invaded Panama to assist the 12,000 that were already there” (Tyle). This was known as Operation Just Cause. This was very different than the normal “peacekeeping operation. It was a U.S. intervention to remove a dangerous leader in a country with justified U.S. interests. Just hours after the invasion began; Guillermo Endara was quickly sworn into presidency, knowing that Panama would soon need a new leader. Endara had won the spring election that year but Noriega did not allow him to take over office. The fighting between Panama and the U.S. only lasted for three days, one of the shortest armed conflicts in American military history. When the invasion began, Noriega went into hiding in the Nunciature of the Vatican embassy in Panama, a religious office. The U.S. troops used psychological warfare, attempting to force him out by playing earsplitting rock music outside the residence. The Vatican complained to President Bush and so the noise was put to a stop. Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990 after thousands of Panamanians protested outside the Vatican, demanding his judgment for the human rights crimes he had committed.

Catching this “evil” dictator was expensive, “costing Americans $164 million! And to convict the former dictator, prosecutors had to make deals with more than a dozen drug traffickers, dropping charges, reducing sentences and allowing some to keep their fortune made from selling cocaine.” (Cohn) In the end, it worked! The first foreign leader convicted of violating the U.S. laws, Noriega fought a seven month trial and in 1992, was found guilty on eight of ten counts of drug trafficking, conspiracy, racketeering, and money laundering. Sentenced to 40 years in prison, (later being reduced to 30 years), he remained in a federal prison in Miami, Florida until his release on September 9, 2007. Research is sketchy about where he is today. Some say he was extradited to France to serve a ten year sentence there for money laundering but I could not find concrete evidence to support this. Others speculate he has retired on a sunny island with money he had stashed from his days as a drug lord.

• Kempe, Frederick. Divorcing the Dictator: America's Bungled Affair with Noriega. New York: Putnam's Sons, 1990.
• Dinges, John. Our Man in Panama: How General Noriega Used the United States and Made Millions in Drugs and Arms. New York: Random House, 1990.

• Harris, David. Shooting the Moon: The True Story of an American Manhunt unlike Any Other, Ever. Boston: Brown, 2001.
• Noriega, Manuel, and Eisner, Peter. America's Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega. New York: Random House, 1997.
• Cohn, B and Reiss, S. “Noriega: How the Fed’s got their man”. Newsweek Volume 119, Issue 16 4/20/1992
• Thomas Donnelly. Operation JUST CAUSE: The Storming of Panama.
New York: Lexington Books, 1991.
• Noriega, Manuel. The History Channel Website. April 13, 2008 .
• Tyle, Laura. UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. U•X•L; 1 edition, 2002
• R. M. Koster and Guillermo Sánchez, In the Time of the Tyrants, 1990

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