Manuel Noriega (c.1934-2017), the former Panamanian military strongman and onetime US ally, has died in prison.
The exact cause of his death is unknown, although it is thought that he had been in intensive care ever since a recent operation to remove a benign brain tumour.
He was closely associated with the USA until spectacularly falling from grace in the late 1980s, resulting in his incarceration from 1992 onward.
Nicknamed by some ‘Pineapple Face’ for his acne-scarred appearance, Noriega first rose through the Panamanian military ranks to the position of Lieutenant in 1962 after a chance meeting with Omar Torrijos, the future head of Panama’s military forces and dictator of Panama from 1968, who brought him into the military.
However, it was his critical role in assisting the thwarting of a coup attempt against Torrijos in 1969 which led to his rise to prominence, as he became the chief of military intelligence shortly after. This role essentially amounted to overseeing Panama’s secret police and coordinating the intimidation and ‘disappearances’ of the military regime’s opponents.
Around this point he became a paid informant of the CIA. When Torrijos died in 1981 in a plane crash – which some of Noriega’s opponents accused him of plotting – Noriega succeeded as the military dictator of Panama two years later, making him an even more valuable asset to the CIA in their fight to contain the spread of communism in Central America.
It was already apparent at the time of his rise to power, however, that Noriega was playing a double-dealing game. On the one hand, he seemingly earned his CIA bribes by allowing aid to pro-American, anti-communist forces in Nicaragua and El Salvador to flow through Panama and also crucially acting as an intermediary to defuse a possible clash between between Cuba and the US when the latter invaded Grenada in 1983 to topple a Marxist coup. On the other hand, clearly the money from the CIA was insufficient, for he also extensively facilitated, in exchange for shares of the lucrative profits, the dealings of Colombian drug cartels, like the Medellin Cartel run by Pablo Escobar.
Gradually, as the enormous extent of his involvement in drugs trafficking was exposed and he became a less compliant ally, he lost favour. In 1988, he was indicted on federal cocaine smuggling charges and economic sanctions were imposed to pressure him to relinquish his hold on Panama. The Reagan Administration refrained from direct action to remove Manuel Noriega from power, possibly due to George H. W. Bush’s presidential election bid and his previous association with Noriega when head of the CIA.
However, in late 1989, seizing the incident of a US military fatality in Panama as an excuse to intervene to protect US citizens in the country. The then elected President Bush Sr. authorized Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama by 25,000 US troops, in order to displace Noriega.
It appears Noriega’s capture was an absolute priority with Operation Nifty Package devoted to the destruction of his possible escape craft, his boat and private jet. Desperately trying to avoid capture, Noriega sought refuge in the Vatican’s diplomatic mission to Panama. Rather ingeniously, US troops flushed him out through playing rock music at deafening noise levels, which Noriega was rumoured to have loathed.
From 1992 onward, Noriega spent his time in prison in the US and Panama for his involvement in drug-dealing and human rights abuses.
Noriega’s importance in Central American affairs in the 1980s and before reflects a particularly ugly side of US history. Military strongmen, often right-wing to the point of fascist in nature, and with tendencies to commit human rights atrocities against the populations they ruled over, received the full backing of the United States in exchange for helping counteract against left-wing, often Communist, insurgencies. In short, Noriega was a relic of the Cold War.
Meanwhile, his loss of favour and subsequent imprisonment in relation to his activities in the narcotics trade underline how in the 1980s Central America lurched from pawn to communist insurgencies and military dictators to bedeviled by the crime and violence that accompanies the illegal drugs trade. The drugs trade remains the single-biggest issue in much of Central America today.