PANAMA POLITICS: Manuel Noriega Biography
Introduction: In 1983, Manuel Noriega unified the armed forces into the Panamanian Defense Forces, promoted himself to the rank of general and became de facto leader of Panama. In 1989, Noriega canceled the presidential elections and attempted to rule through a puppet government. After a military coup against Noriega failed, the United States invaded Panama, and Noriega finally surrendered In January 1990.
Once one of Central America’s most notorious military strongmen, former Panamanian dictator and convicted drug trafficker Manuel Noriega has been a prisoner since being toppled from power in 1990 in a U.S. invasion.
For almost two decades, Noriega was a major player in a country of critical regional importance to the U.S. because of its location on the Panama Canal, a key strategic and economic waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on the narrow isthmus linking the Americas.
Born in 1934, Noriega was abandoned by his parents at the age of five and raised by an aunt in a rundown district of Panama City. After failing to get into medical school, Noriega joined the army, studying at Peru’s Military Academy of Chorrillos and quickly rising through the ranks.
In the 1970s he served as head of military intelligence to General Omar Torrijos, who had seized power in a military coup in 1968. Torrijos’ death in a plane crash in 1981 saw Noriega emerge as his de facto successor and by 1983 he controlled both Panama’s armed forces and civilian government.
Noriega’s rule saw a breakdown in relations between Panama and the U.S. with Washington cutting off economic and military assistance and freezing Panamanian government assets.
In 1988 Noriega was indicted in the U.S. on charges of racketeering, laundering drug money and drug trafficking. He was accused of having links to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s notorious Medellin cartel and, in the process, amassing a multi-million dollar fortune.
Amid growing unrest in Panama, U.S. President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Panama in December 1989, claiming that Noriega’s rule posed a threat to U.S. lives and property.
With more than 20,000 U.S. troops on Panamanian soil, Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy for 10 days, eventually surrendering to U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials on January 3, 1990, after U.S. troops had surrounded the compound with loudspeakers playing deafening rock music.
Noriega’s trial in 1991 was dubbed the drugs “trial of the century” by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and eventually saw him found guilty on eight counts and sentenced to 40 years in jail. Noriega was the first foreign head of state to be convicted in a U.S. court, but the trial also led to revelations that Noriega had been a paid CIA asset for many years.
Amid procedural wrangling over what should be permissible in court, Noriega claimed to have earned almost $10 million from his intelligence work, while the U.S. government offered to stipulate he had been paid just $320,000.
But Noriega was prevented from revealing specific details of his work for the CIA — a ruling upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals which said revelations about Noriega’s intelligence work would have “shifted unduly the focus of the trial from allegations of drug trafficking to matters of geo-political intrigue.”
Noriega has since said his relationship with the U.S. soured when he refused to participate in acts of sabotage against the communist Nicaraguan government during the Cold War-era, anti-communist efforts spearheaded by the CIA in Central America during the 1980s. The CIA has not commented on Noriega’s claims.
Granted prisoner of war status following his trial, Noriega’s sentence was later reduced to 30 years and he was due for release on parole in 2007. But he remained in captivity pending a decision on a French extradition request. A Paris court had convicted Noriega in absentia in 1999 on charges that he had laundered $2.8 million in drug money by buying property in France.
As part of an extradition deal agreed in April and signed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, France agreed to hold a new trial and to uphold Noriega’s prisoner of war status.
Noriega’s attorneys argued that the United States was violating the Geneva Convention by not sending him back to Panama, which has also demanded his repatriation to stand trial on murder charges. Although Noriega was sentenced to 60 years in prison in absentia, Panama has said he would receive a new trial.
But some say Noriega would likely be treated leniently in Panama following an amendment to the country’s criminal code in 2008 allowing criminals older than 75 to serve their sentences under house arrest instead of in prison.
“For us, it is better that he is serving time in prison in another country,” Alida Benedetti, an attorney and former human rights activist in Panama, told Time magazine. “He deserves jail. He killed a lot of people. We don’t want him back.”
In his testimony to the French court, Noriega revealed more details about his former relationship with U.S. officials.
“I received high praise from the U.S., Interpol and other countries who all benefited from my fight against drugs,” he told the courtroom, adding that he had been “especially in contact with the CIA.”
Noriega’s attorneys argued that a 10-year jail term amounted to a life sentence for an elderly man who suffered a stroke and was treated for prostate cancer while in prison in the U.S.
In a recent interview with CNN, conducted before Noriega’s extradition to France, the former dictator’s grandson, Jean-Manuel Beauchamp, said his grandfather was “ready for anything.”
“He’s the smartest man I know. He’s so friendly, outgoing, knowledgeable. He’s always looking to teach or give advice,” said Beauchamp. “He’s ready for anything. He’s probably developed strategies, in his own mind, to emotionally prepare.”
Manuel Noriega Fast Facts
Birth date: February 11, 1934
Birth place: Panama City, Panama
Birth name: Manuel Antonio Noriega Morena
Father: Ricaurte Noriega, accountant
Mother: Maria Feliz Morena
Marriage: Felicidad Sieiro (late 1960s-present)
Children: Sandra, Thays (daughter) and Lorena
Education: Military School of Chorrillos, Peru, Engineering, 1962
1. Was on the CIA’s payroll for intelligence work.
2. Abandoned by his parents at five, he was raised by his aunt, Mama Luisa.
3. While in US custody, Noriega was afflicted with prostate cancer and suffered a stroke.
4. The first foreign head of state to be convicted in a US court.
1968-Lieutenant of the Panama National Guard.
1970-1983-Promoted to lieutenant colonel and chief of military intelligence.
1971 –At the request of the United States, travels to Cuba to help secure the release of the crews of two American freighters seized by Cuba.
1983-1989-Takes command of the Panamanian Army.
1983-1990-Military dictator of Panama.
August 1983-Is promoted to general and commander of the National Guard.
June 12, 1986-Anexpose of Noriega by Seymour Hershappears in the New York Times, accusing him of murder, money laundering and drug trafficking.
February 4, 1989 –The United States indicts Noriega on charges of racketeering, laundering drug money and drug smuggling.
December 20, 1989 –The United States invades Panama and launches “Operation Just Cause” to oust Noriega.
January 3, 1990-Surrenders after 10 days spent in the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Panama City.
April 9, 1992-Is convicted on eight counts of drug smuggling and racketeering.
July 10, 1992-Is sentenced to 40 years in prison.
July 6, 1993-September 6, 1993-Trial, in absentia, for themurder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora. Noriega is convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
March 1994 –Is convicted, in absentia, of the October 4, 1989murder of Major Moises Giroldi. He later is sentenced to 20 years in prison.
March 4, 1999 –His US sentence is reduced to 30 years.
1999-Is convicted in absentia from a Paris court on charges that he had laundered $2.8 million in drug money by buying property in France.
August 24, 2007-Judge William Hoeveler rules that Noriegacan be extradited to Franceto serve a 10-year prison sentence for money laundering. Attorneys for Noriega argued that his status as a prisoner of war meant he should be sent back to Panama.
September 9, 2007-Noriega’s scheduled mandatory release date from prison. However, due to appeals of his extradition to France, Noriega is not released.
January 14, 2009 –The 11th US Circuit Court of Appealshears argumentsin Noriega’s bid to avoid extradition to France. The court will later address whether his status as a Prisoner of War, under the rules of the Geneva Convention, means he must be repatriated to Panama.
April 2009 –The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals denies Noriega’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
January 25, 2010 –The US Supreme Court refuses to hear Noriega’s appeal.
April 26, 2010 –Noriega is extradited to FranceafterSecretary of State Hillary Clintonsigns an extradition order.
July 7, 2010-Noriega is found guilty of money laundering in a French court and is sentenced to seven years in prison.
June 20, 2011-The French foreign ministry announces that it has begun the process of extraditing Noriega to Panama, with the consent of the United States. He is wanted in Panama on charges he killed a political rival.
November 23, 2011-A French appeals court approves Noriega’s extradition to Panama to serve out his sentences for past crimes.
December 11, 2011-Noriega is extradited to Panama from France.
February 5-9, 2012 –Noriega ishospitalizedin Panama City for hypertension and a possible stroke.
May 9, 2012-May 29, 2012 –Noriega is hospitalized in Panama City for bronchitis.
July 15, 2014 –Files a lawsuit against the Activision Blizzardvideo game company for harming his reputation with the game, “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.”
October 27, 2014 –A judge dismisses Noriega’s lawsuit against the creators of the “Call of Duty” video game franchise.
June 24, 2015 –Noriega apologizes, on local broadcaster Telemetro, to his country for the offenses of his regime and his own actions that led up to the 1989 US invasion and his ouster.
May 12, 2016 –Noriega’s doctor reports that the former Panamanian leader will need to undergo surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.
October 17, 2016 –As he gets ready for brain surgery, Noriega is granted a request to recover from the procedure at the hospital. He had initially asked the court for permission to recover at home.
January 23, 2017 –A Panama court rules that Noriega can prep for brain surgery at home under house arrest.
– Manuel Noriega Biography (CNN)