Manuel Noriega - from US Friend to Foe

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Manuel Noriega - from US Friend to Foe

As with Saddam Hussein, Noriega enjoyed American support until he turned into a wayward ally who had to be overthrown

by
Mark Tran

Vice-president of the United States, George Bush, meets Manuel Noriega in 1983. (Photograph: Sygma/Corbis)

Before Saddam Hussein there was Manuel Noriega. Like Saddam, Noriega
enjoyed US support until he turned into a wayward ally, then an
embarrassment, and finally an "imminent danger" who had to be
overthrown.

Noriega was recruited as a CIA informant while
studying at a military academy in Peru. He received intelligence and
counterintelligence training at the School of the Americas at Fort
Gulick, Panama,
in 1967, as well as a course in psychological operations at Fort Bragg,
North Carolina. He was to remain on the CIA payroll until February 1988.

After
a military coup in 1968, Noriega quickly rose through the ranks and
became head of Panama's military intelligence and a key figure under
General Omar Torrijos, the military ruler who signed a treaty with the
US to restore the Panama canal zone to Panamanian sovereignty in 1977.

After
Torrijos's death in a mysterious plane crash in 1981, Noriega
consolidated his power, becoming Panama's de facto ruler, promoting
himself to full general in 1983.

Noriega made himself valuable to
the US during the Contra wars when he allowed the US to set up
listening posts in Panama and by helping the US campaign against the
leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Noriega allowed Panama to be
used as a conduit for US money and weapons for the Contras as then US
president Ronald Reagan sought to undermine the Sandinistas. But
Noriega's increasing brutality turned him into a liability, especially
after the assassination of Hugo Spadafora, a political opponent who was
found beheaded in 1985.

By the late 1980s, the US turned against
Noriega. The 1988 Senate subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics and
international operations concluded that "the saga of Panama's General
Manuel Antonio Noriega represents one of the most serious foreign
policy failures for the United States.
Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, Noriega was able to manipulate US
policy towards his country, while skilfully accumulating near-absolute
power in Panama.

"It is clear that each US government agency
which had a relationship with Noriega turned a blind eye to his
corruption and drug dealing, even as he was emerging as a key player on
behalf of the Medellín Cartel [a member of which was the notorious
Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar]."

Noriega was indicted by two
US federal grand juries in Florida on charges of drug trafficking and
racketeering and the CIA took him off its payroll. The next year,
Noriega's image as a thuggish dictator was reinforced in the starkest
terms as opposition candidates in the presidential election were
stopped and beaten up by Noriega's "dignity battalions".

Following
a series of incidents that culminated in the death of an American
soldier, President George Bush decided it was time for regime change.
In December 1989, Bush sent in US troops to overthrow Noriega, offering a $1m reward for information leading to his capture.

"General
Noriega's reckless threats and attacks upon Americans in Panama created
an imminent danger to the 35,000 American citizens in Panama. As
president, I have no higher obligation than to safeguard the lives of
American citizens," Bush said at the time.

Operation Just Cause
ended in Noriega's capture when he surrendered to US troops after
taking refuge in the Apostolic Nunciature in Panama. In one of the more
bizarre episodes of the invasion, US forces played loud rock music –
including I Fought the Law, by the Clash – to put pressure on Noriega
to give himself up. Losses on the US side were 24 troops, plus three
civilian casualties. The number of Panamanian civilian deaths was put
at about 200, although there are claims that the number is much higher.

Noriega
was convicted in Miami in 1992 on multiple charges, including drug
trafficking, and sentenced to 40 years. That was reduced for good
behaviour and he completed his sentence in 2007. Since then inmate
38699-079, as he was numbered in prison, has dedicated himself to fighting extradition to France, where he has been accused of laundering up to $3m (£2m) of drug money through property purchases in Paris.

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