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