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 initially 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 Mr. 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 tutelage 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. Mr. Noriega became a loyal aide to General Torrijos, orchestrating the abuse and imprisonment of political opponents and tightening relationships with American law enforcement and intelligence officers.
After General Torrijos died in a plane crash in western Panama in 1981, Mr. 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 Mr. Noriega’s representatives protesting the use of his likeness and the “Pineapple Face” moniker in a “Call of Duty” video game.)
Embracing his power, Mr. Noriega rigged civilian elections to favor his handpicked candidates. He strengthened ties to drug traffickers. But he also sought close bonds with the United States.
Even as American drug agents grew more worried about his cartel relationships, Mr. 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 Colonel North’s obtained by the National Security Archive through the Freedom of Information Act.
Colonel 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.
Mr. Noriega offered to assassinate Sandinista leaders or commit acts of sabotage in exchange for Colonel North’s help in repairing Mr. Noriega’s deteriorating image in Washington. A congressional report said that 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 American 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, Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 regular access to a telephone, additional 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.
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. Mr. Noriega’s lawyers argued that the money was payment by the Central Intelligence Agency, but the couple were convicted and received a 10-year sentence.
The United States had intended to release Mr. 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.
Mr. Noriega is survived by his wife and three daughters, Lorena, Sandra and Thays Noriega.
While incarcerated in the United States, Mr. 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 Mr. Noriega.
“I want to close the cycle of the military era as the last commander of that group,” he said, “asking for forgiveness.”
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