Jonathan Marshall and Your Watchman wrote this article.
Born in Panama City, the son of Ricaurte Noriega, an accountant, and his maid, Maria Feliz Morena, Manuel was brought up in a foster home from the age of five. He joined the army as a cadet at the age of 14: since he had both African and indigenous blood, this was one of the few institutions in Panama that could offer him social advancement. He acquired the nickname “Pineapple Face”, his heavily pockmarked features the result of a childhood illness.
Part of his military training was carried out in the US, where he was recruited by the CIA. In 1967 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Panamanian National Guard, and in the years that followed became a supporter of the head of the army, Omar Torrijos, who appointed him chief of military intelligence.
Following Torrijos’s death in a plane crash in 1981, which some claim Noriega orchestrated, he became the head of the renamed National Defence Forces and thus the most powerful man in Panama, where the elected president and congress did not have any real power. His mixed race background initially gave him a popular base of support, but he was opposed by the traditional political parties.
Under pressure from the US, Noriega permitted presidential elections in 1984, but the results were manipulated so that his placeman, Nicolás Barletta, was adjudged to have won. In the 1989 elections, Endara’s victory was so decisive that even Noriega’s Fplaceman accepted it. Nevertheless Endara and his vice-president, Guillermo Ford, were badly beaten up when they tried to hold a parade claiming victory, and Noriega declared the election null and void. This was the beginning of the end for him.
The death of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega on May 29 elicited few if any tears. But it should have sparked more reflection in the United States on his ugly history of service to the CIA, the hypocrisy of Washington’s once Noriega became an unreliable ally against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, and the George H.W. Bush administration’s bloody and illegal invasion of Panama in December 1989.
In fairness, many progressives and mainstream journalists have called attention to this troublesome history over the years. But few have dared to question the nearly universal condemnation of Noriega as a protector of international drug traffickers. That incendiary claim — first broadcast loudly by the unlikely trio of right-wing Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina; liberal Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts; and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh — galvanized the American public to support his ouster.
Among those indicted were Medellin Cartel kingpins Pablo Escobar and Fabio Ochoa. Panama made 40 arrests and seized $12 million from accounts in 18 local banks. Said one U.S. prosecutor who helped direct the case, “The Panamanian officials we were dealing with were sincerely cooperative. . . . They could have breached security, and they didn’t.”
Although Noriega was due to be released from prison in the US after serving 17 years of his sentence, he faced charges of money laundering in France, and so in 2010 was flown directly from jail in Florida to Paris. This time he was sentenced to seven years. However, he was handed over to Panama a year later as he was also a wanted man there. After several years in El Renacer prison, near Panama City, he was released under house arrest early this year for an operation to remove a brain tumor.