Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega dies aged 83

Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega dies aged 83

He had been serving prison time for murder and forced disappearances during his dictatorship, and was being held in a prison cell overlooking the Panama Canal

PANAMA CITY: Panama’s former dictator, Manuel Antonio Noriega, who died in Panama City late Monday, was physically diminished after decades of imprisonment for crimes committed during his 1983-1989 rule.

Noriega, 83, passed away in the Panama City public Santo Tomas hospital where he had been recovering from early March surgery to remove a brain tumour, and a subsequent operation to clean up cerebral bleeding.

The announcement of his death was made by government communications secretary Manuel Dominguez.

“Mr Noriega died tonight [late Monday],” Dominguez said.

Noriega had been serving prison time for murder and forced disappearances during his dictatorship, and was being held in a prison cell overlooking the Panama Canal.

The ex-strongman had been granted temporary release on January 28 to undergo the medical procedure.

Following years of ill health that included respiratory problems, prostate cancer and depression, Noriega’s family pleaded with authorities to him to serve the rest of his sentence under house arrest.

But the government rejected their appeals, and said Noriega would return to prison once he recovered from the brain tumour surgery.

Noriega was toppled in a December 1989 US military invasion.

After surrendering to US troops in January 1990, he was flown to the United States where he was convicted on drug trafficking and money laundering charges, and sentenced to prison.

In 2010, Noriega was sent to France, where he was convicted on money laundering charges.

The following year, Noriega was extradited to Panama, where he was locked up for the 1985 murder of a political opponent, the 1989 murder of a military officer who attempted a coup against him, and for the massacre of soldiers rebelling against him.

Ignominious ouster

Other cases were pending against him for the disappearance of people before he became dictator, back when he headed Panama’s National Guard.

In 2015, Noriega had apologised “to anybody who felt offended, affected, prejudiced or humiliated by my actions”.

Noriega’s public persona was extinguished nearly three decades ago, when the United States toppled him in an invasion that spoke volumes about Cold War tensions at the time.

Noriega, 83, died in a hospital late Monday as he was recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumour. He was the dictator of Panama during 1983-1989.

Noriega’s ignominious ouster by US troops in December 1989 was a dramatic fall from power for a man who had risen through the ranks of Panama’s military while working for the CIA, to become de facto ruler of a country that hosts the strategic Panama Canal.

The ex-strongman was captured and imprisoned in the United States, France and later Panama under a variety of charges, ranging from drug trafficking, money laundering and forced disappearances.

Short in stature and with a pockmarked face, Noriega was considered an unscrupulous and opportunistic officer who juggled relationships with Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and several foreign intelligence services.

“The most surprising thing in the life of Manuel Antonio Noriega was what he did to the (military) institution, making it an instrument, a macabre combination of crime and drug trafficking,” said a former National Guard general, Ruben Dario Paredes, who used to be Noriega’s commanding officer and who is now a critic.

Born to a poor family in Panama City on February 11, 1934, Noriega started his military career at a young age.

Reportedly recruited onto the CIA payroll in 1967, his rise through the ranks began when he took part in a 1968 coup against then-president Arnulfo Arias.

A year later, one of the coup’s leaders, General Omar Torrijos, promoted him to head the feared G-2 military intelligence unit.

‘Pineapple Face’

In 1983, two years after Torrijos’ death in a mysterious plane crash, Noriega took charge of the now-defunct National Guard, giving him de facto power over the country.

Noriega lived a life of luxury with his wife Felicidad and their three daughters — Sandra, Lorena and Thays. They lived in a sumptuous estate that included a mini-zoo, a private casino and a ballroom.

The mansion was the scene of extravagant parties, and in the main bedroom there was a giant safe that rumours said contained millions of dollars’ worth of various currencies — a fortune that supposedly vanished when the US troops invaded.

“Pineapple Face” — as Noriega was known due to his facial acne scars — played various sides off each other to stay in power while civil wars fuelled by US-Soviet Cold War rivalry raged across much of the rest of Central America.

In time, Noriega’s brutal tactics to stay in power set the foundation for his eventual ouster — especially his defiance of then US president Ronald Reagan, who wanted him removed from office.

In 1986, a US intelligence leak to The New York Times revealed that Noriega was involved in the torture and decapitation a year earlier of a guerrilla and opposition critic, Hugo Spadafora.

Roberto Diaz Herrera, a colonel who was second-in-charge in the regime, then accused Noriega of electoral fraud, corruption and being behind the plane crash that killed the popular Torrijos.

Those and other accusations triggered public protests and unrest that sharpened Washington’s determination to remove him from office.

It was Reagan’s successor, former CIA chief George H.W. Bush, who ordered the Panama invasion — code-named Operation Just Cause — on December 20, 1989.

US attack

Thousands of Panamanian civilians died in the US attack. Noriega fled to the Vatican embassy, where he bunkered down for days as US soldiers outside blasted rock music in an attempt to smoke him out.

Noriega surrendered to the US forces on January 3, 1990 and was flown to the United States, where he was sentenced to 40 years in prison on drug trafficking charges. He ended up serving 21 years of that term, which was reduced for “good behaviour”.

In 2010, however, Noriega was sent to France, where he was sentenced to seven years for laundering $3 million in cash from the Medellin drug cartel through French banks.

One year later, France extradited him back to Panama, where the now broken down ex-dictator arrived in a wheelchair. Noriega had been sentenced in absentia to three 20-year prison terms for the forced disappearances of opposition figures, including Spadafora.

Panama’s authorities rejected multiple requests for Noriega to serve out his sentence under house arrest based on ill health, said to include strokes, respiratory problems, prostate cancer and depression.

The former dictator likely went to his grave without divulging many secrets built up over a lifetime of shady dealings.

“In the name of God, I swear I had nothing to do with the deaths of any of these people,” Noriega said shortly before his death, referring to the many victims attributed to him.

“There was always a permanent conspiracy against me. But I am here, standing straight, with no cowardice.”