Nor­iega, U.S. ally turned tar­get, dies af­ter decades in jail

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - WORLD - BY KATHIA MARTINEZ

PANAMA CITY — Manuel Nor­iega had be­come a prob­lem. At least that’s the way it looked from Wash­ing­ton.

For years, the Pana­ma­nian mil­i­tary man had been a close and some­times clan­des­tine ally of U.S. gov­ern­ments as he rose to power in a coun­try de­fined by a U.S. strate­gic as­set, the Panama Canal, and in a re­gion where Amer­ica was fight­ing a se­ries of proxy wars against Soviet al­lies.

But things were go­ing sour. The pop­ulist strong­man who had long co­op­er­ated with the CIA was grow­ing in­creas­ingly in­de­pen­dent, more em­bar­rass­ingly thug­gish. Of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton — and grand juries in Florida — de­cided he was in ca­hoots with the drug traf­fick­ers he once

helped fight.

So in De­cem­ber 1989, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush

sent Amer­i­can troops into Panama City to ar­rest Nor­iega — the last of sev­eral times U.S. mil­i­tary forces have di­rectly top­pled a govern­ment in the Amer­i­cas.

Af­ter a few days of fight­ing, the Central Amer­i­can dic­ta­tor fled to asy­lum at the Vat­i­can Em­bassy on Christ­mas Eve, set­ting off a bizarre siege in which U.S. troops bom­barded the mis­sion with thun­der­ous rock and rap mu­sic. Ten days later, he fi­nally sur­ren­dered and was whisked to Mi­ami.

Nor­iega was never again a free man. He was im­pris­oned first in Florida, then in France, and fi­nally at home in Panama, where he died Mon­day at age 83.

Manuel An­to­nio Nor­iega was born poor in Panama City on Feb. 11, 1934, and was raised by foster par­ents.

He joined Panama’s De­fense Forces in 1962 and steadily ad­vanced through the ranks, mainly through loy­alty to his men­tor, Gen. Omar Tor­ri­jos, who be­came Panama’s de facto leader af­ter a 1968 coup.

As Tor­ri­jos’ in­tel­li­gence chief, Nor­iega mon­i­tored po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents and de­vel­oped close ties with U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies guard­ing against pos­si­ble threats to the canal. Two years af­ter Tor­ri­jos died in a mys­te­ri­ous plane crash in 1981, Nor­iega be­came the head of the armed forces and Panama’s de facto ruler.

Nor­iega ruled with an iron fist, or­der­ing the deaths of those who op­posed him and main­tain­ing a murky, close and con­flic­tive re­la­tion­ship with the United States.

At the apex of his power he wielded great in­flu­ence out­side the coun­try as well thanks to long­stand­ing re­la­tion­ships with spy agen­cies around the world, said R.M. Koster, an Amer­i­can nov­el­ist and bi­og­ra­pher of Nor­iega.

Nor­iega was con­sid­ered a valued CIA as­set and was paid mil­lions of dol­lars for as­sis­tance to the U.S. through­out Latin Amer­ica, in­clud­ing act­ing as a li­ai­son to Cuban leader Fidel Cas­tro. Nor­iega also helped the U.S. seize drug loads at sea and track money laun­der­ing in Panama’s banks, and re­ported on guer­rilla and ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties.

But Wash­ing­ton ul­ti­mately soured on him, es­pe­cially af­ter a top po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent was killed in 1985 and Nor­iega ap­peared to join forces with Latin Amer­i­can drug traf­fick­ers. Foes in the Pana­ma­nian mil­i­tary tried sev­eral coups but failed, and their lead­ers were sum­mar­ily ex­e­cuted by fir­ing squad.

The be­gin­ning of his down­fall came in 1988 when fed­eral grand juries in the Florida cities of Mi­ami and Tampa in­dicted Nor­iega on drug traf­fick­ing charges.


Pana­ma­nian mil­i­tary strong­man Gen. Manuel Nor­iega talks to re­porters in Panama City. Panama’s ex-dic­ta­tor Nor­iega died Mon­day in a hos­pi­tal in Panama City. He was 83.

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