By Elida Moreno
PANAMA CITY (Reuters) – Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was for years a useful tool of the United States, until President George H.W. Bush lost patience with his brutal, drug-running rule and sent nearly 28,000 troops to invade the country and oust him.
Noriega, whose death at the age of 83 was announced late on Monday, was captured by U.S. forces in January 1990, two weeks after the massive invasion. He spent the rest of his life in custody in the United States, France and Panama for crimes ranging from murder to racketeering and drug-running.
With the knowledge of U.S. officials, Noriega formed “the hemisphere’s first narcokleptocracy,” a U.S. Senate subcommittee report said, calling him “the best example in recent U.S. foreign policy of how a foreign leader is able to manipulate the United States to the detriment of our own interests.”
After his capture, Noriega tried to turn the tables on the United States, saying it had worked hand in glove with him.
“Everything done by the Republic of Panama under my command was known,” Noriega said during his incarceration. “Panama was an open book.”
By the time he returned to Panama in a wheelchair in December 2011, Noriega was a shadow of the macho army general who swung a machete at rallies. In 2015, he asked the country for forgiveness for his notorious rule.
The former strongman spent the rest of his life in solitary confinement for the murders of hundreds of opponents until being released from prison and placed under house arrest for three months in January to prepare for brain surgery. His death was the result of complications from an operation to remove a tumor.
Born in the tough Panama City neighborhood of San Felipe on Feb. 11, 1934, less than a mile from the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone, Noriega was raised by a family friend.
Severe teenage acne left deep scars, lending him the lifelong nickname “Pineapple Face.”
A poor but bright youth, he had few options until a half-brother helped him join the military.
Street-smart and ruthless, Noriega showed an early flair for “psyops” – psychological warfare operations – and developed an abiding interest in Asian leaders Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and 13th century Mongol warlord Genghis Khan.
One of his first posts was under Omar Torrijos, who went on to seize power in a 1968 coup and appointed Noriega as head of military intelligence. He oversaw the army’s corrupt off-book deals and ran its ruthless secret police force.
Dubbed “mi gangster” by Torrijos, Noriega orchestrated the disappearance of scores of opponents, some of whose bodies later turned up in exhumations at the former Tocumen military base, bound and showing signs of torture.
‘BARRAGE OF EVIDENCE’
A paid CIA collaborator since the early 1970s, Noriega at first worked closely with Washington, allowing U.S. forces to set up listening posts in Panama, and use the country to funnel aid to pro-American forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Using that information, Noriega manipulated both his Panamanian and American bosses to further his own interests.
Torrijos died in a 1981 air crash, and Noriega became de facto ruler two years later. By then, he had already started to help Colombian drug lords such as Pablo Escobar smuggle cocaine into the United States and launder bales of drug cash through Panama’s banks, receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks.
U.S. officials knew about some of his criminal deals as early as 1978, according to testimony, and by 1983 had a “twenty-one cannon barrage of evidence” against Noriega.
But the United States at first refrained from taking action, partly because Panama was seen as a buffer against leftist insurgencies in Central America during the Cold War.
Tensions with the United States began mounting in 1985 when Noriega dismissed Nicolas Ardito Barletta, Panama’s first democratically elected president in 16 years. That election had been a precondition for the United States to hand back control of the Panama Canal.
As Noriega dabbled in geopolitical intrigue, lending covert support to Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, his criminal activities also mushroomed. Between 1970 and 1987, he appeared in at least 80 different U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration files.
Just eight weeks before Noriega was charged by U.S. prosecutors, the agency still maintained there was insufficient evidence against him. But U.S. patience was wearing thin.
OPERATION JUST CAUSE
In February 1988, Noriega was indicted on federal cocaine trafficking and money laundering charges. The U.S. Congress imposed economic sanctions to increase the pressure.
But Noriega refused to back down, nullifying results of a general election won by an opponent.
In December 1989, Panama’s National Assembly named Noriega “maximum leader” and declared the United States and Panama to be in a “state of war.” On Dec. 20, 1989, U.S. troops invaded in “Operation Just Cause,” razing the army’s headquarters and turning the capital upside down to find Noriega.
On the run, he sought refuge in the Vatican’s embassy, and according to popular rumor, he arrived disguised as a woman.
U.S. forces laid siege to the embassy, forcing Noriega to surrender on Jan. 3, 1990 with the aid of psyops tactics he once admired: a day-round wall of rock and rap music he reportedly despised, including Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
To some critics, the invasion of the strategic isthmus nation set the tone for U.S. interventionism in the post-Cold War era and was a stepping stone to the Iraq War.
In 1992, Noriega was sentenced in Florida to 40 years in prison. He served 17 years before being extradited into 2010 to France, where he had been convicted of money laundering.
In a prison memoir, he said he had been ousted for refusing to toe Washington’s Cold War line on Central America, and recast himself as a nationalist hero. This view was widely derided.
By the time Noriega was sent back to a Panamanian jail in 2011, the country had moved on from his bloody legacy. In early 2014, the government demolished his old luxury mansion.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)