Date of birth
Place of birth
General Manuel Antonio Noriega (born February 11, 1938) was a Panamanian general and the de facto military leader of Panama from 1983 to 1989. He was initially a strong ally of the United States and is said to have been paid by the CIA from the late 1950s to 1986. By the late 1980s his actions had become increasingly unacceptable to American law enforcement officials and policymakers, and he was overthrown and captured by a U.S. invading force in 1989. He was taken to the United States, tried for drug trafficking, and imprisoned in 1992. He remains imprisoned in a federal prison in Miami, Florida. On December 4, 2004, he was moved to an undisclosed Miami hospital after suffering a "very minor stroke".
Born in Panama City, Noriega was a career soldier, receiving much of his education at the Military School de Chorrillos in Lima, Peru and at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. He was commissioned in the National Guard in 1967 and promoted to Lieutenant in 1968. It has been alleged that he was part of the military coup d'etat that removed Arnulfo Arias from power; in Noriega's account of the 1968 coup, neither he nor his mentor Omar Torrijos were involved. In the power struggle which followed, including a failed coup attempt in 1969, Noriega supported Torrijos. He received a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and was appointed chief of military intelligence by Torrijos, Commander of the Armed Forces in the new government. In this post, he conducted a ruthless campaign against peasant guerrillas in Western Panama, and there are allegations that he orchestrated the "disappearances" of political opponents. However, Noriega also claims that, following Torrijos' instructions, he negotiated an amnesty for about 400 defeated guerilla fighters, enabling them to return from exile in Honduras and Costa Rica.
Omar Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981 (in a book entitled Confessions of an Economic Hit-Man, published in 2004, author John Perkins claims that a bomb was planted aboard the plane by American interests). He was succeeded by Rubén Darío Paredes, while Noriega became Chief of Staff. Noriega enhanced his position as de facto ruler in August 1983 by promoting himself to General. Noriega proved himself an ally to the US. Despite the canal treaties, he allowed the US to set up listening posts in Panama, acted as a diplomatic go-between with Cuban president Fidel Castro, and agreed to an American government request that he provide a refuge for the Shah of Iran. He aided the pro-American forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua by acting as a conduit for American money, and according to some accounts, weapons. However, Noriega insists that his policy during this period was essentially neutral, allowing partisans on both sides of the various conflicts free movement in Panama, as long as they did not attempt to use Panama as a base of military operations. He rebuffed requests by Salvadorean rightist Roberto D'Aubuisson to restrict the movements of FMLN (leftist Salvadorean insurgent) leaders in Panama, and likewise rebuffed demands by American Lt. Colonel Oliver North that he provide military assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras. Noriega insists that his refusal to meet North's demands was the actual basis for the U.S. campaign to oust him.
In October 1984, the first Presidential elections since 1972 were won by Nicolas Ardito Barletta , amid allegations of fraud, by a slim margin of 1,723 votes. Barletta was a former student of United States Secretary of State George Schultz, and was jointly supported by the U.S. and Noriega. Barletta resigned in September 1985 and was replaced with his Vice President, Eric Arturo Delvalle .
According to statements made by former CIA Director Admiral Stansfield Turner in 1988, Noriega was on the CIA payroll since the early 1970s and he retained U.S. support until February 5, 1988 when the DEA had him indicted on federal drug charges relating to his activities before 1984. On February 25, Delvalle issued a decree, declaring that Noriega was relieved of his duties. Noriega ignored the decree, which he claims had no legal basis, and Delvalle left for the U.S. Noriega claims that on March 18, 1988, he met with U.S. State Department officials William Walker and Michael Kozak , who offered him $2 Million to go into exile in Spain. According to Noriega, he refused the offer.
At this point, the Reagan Administration went into high gear in its campaign to oust Noriega. The American media gave sympathetic coverage to accusations by a former colleague that Noriega had played a role in the killing of leading critic Hugo Spadafora. Noriega suffered from severe acne and was nicknamed "Pineapple Face" by the American press, due to his pockmarked complexion.
The U.S. encouraged the formation of the Civic Crusade, which Noriega claims was the handiwork of U.S. Embassy chargé d'affaires John Maisto , who arranged for Civic Crusade leaders to travel to the Philippines to learn the tactics of the U.S.-supported movement to overthrow Ferdinand Marcos. Supporters of Noriega referred to the Civic Crusade as a creature of the rabiblancos or "white-tails", the wealthy elite of European extraction which dominated Panamanian commerce, and which had dominated Panamanian politics before the advent of Torrijos. Noriega, like Torrijos, was dark-skinned, and claimed to represent the majority population which was poor and of mixed Spanish, Amerindian and African heritage. Noriega supporters mocked the demonstrations of the Civic Crusade as "the protest of the Mercedes Benz," deriding the wealthy ladies for banging on Teflon-coated pots and pans (unlike the cruder and louder pots and pans traditionally banged by the poor in South American protests), or sending their maids to protest for them. The American press, however, covered these demonstrations with great sympathy.
The elections of May 1989 were surrounded by controversy. An American, Kurt Muse , was apprehended by the Panamanian authorities, after he had set up a sophisticated radio and computer installation, designed to jam Panamanian radio and broadcast phony election returns. The Panamanian government decided to proceed with the election; Noriega's candidate lost by 37 percentage points to the American-backed candidate, Guillermo Endara Galimany. There were charges of election irregularities on both sides, but the election was certified as legitimate by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and an American ally, Bishop Marcos McGrath . Noriega cancelled the election.
The U.S. had imposed harsh economic sanctions, and U.S. military forces were conducting extensive maneuvers and operations, which Noriega claims were provocative and a violation of the Panama Canal Treaty. On December 15, 1989, the U.S. press reported that Noriega had declared a state of war with the U.S. government. Noriega strongly disputes this characterization, claiming that his statement referred to U.S. actions against Panama, and did not represent a declaration of hostilities by Noriega. His forces shot and killed a U.S. Marine in Panama City. It was also alleged that his forces were engaging in widespread harassment of other US troops, including at least one case of Censored page.
On December 20, 1989 the U.S. invaded Panama with 27,000 troops in Operation Just Cause, and Guillermo Endara Galimany was sworn in as President at a U.S. military installation (five years later, in the next scheduled election, Endara lost to Ernesto Pérez Balladares of Noriega's Democratic Revolutionary Party.) Fighting between the U.S. military and the Panamanian Defense Force lasted for five days. According to U.S. governmental sources, several hundred Panamanians were killed (mainly civilians), and 23 American soldiers died. Latin American and international sources have estimated the civilian death toll to have been more in the order of 3,000, with between 20,000 to 30,000 having been rendered homeless. Noriega took refuge in the Nunciature of the Vatican embassy in Panama, where U.S. troops used psychological warfare, attempting to force him out by playing hard rock music outside the residence.  (PDF document) The Vatican complained to President Bush because of this and U.S. troops stopped the noise. After a demonstration a few days later by thousands of Panamanians demanding his judgment for human rights violations, Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990.
The Drug Trial
Noriega was flown to the U.S. and tried on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering in April 1992. Administration critic Noam Chomsky has claimed that the US knew about Noriega's involvement in drug trafficking since at least 1972, and knew that Noriega had stolen previous elections, but allowed all of this to occur over the years, retaining Noriega on the CIA payroll, until it was clear in 1989 that Noriega was no longer controllable by the US. His trial was held in Miami, Florida.
The prosecution presented a case that has been criticized by numerous observers. The prosecution's case was completely reworked several times, as problems developed with the witnesses, whose stories contradicted one another. The U.S. Attorney negotiated deals with 26 different drug felons, including Carlos Lehder, who were given leniency, cash payments, and allowed to keep their drug earnings, in return for testimony against Noriega. Several of these witnesses had been arrested by Noriega for drug trafficking in Panama. Some witnesses later recanted their testimony, and agents of the CIA, DEA, DIA, and the Israeli Mossad who were knowledgable about Central American drug trafficking have publicly charged that the trial was trumped up. Noriega was found guilty and sentenced on September 16, 1992, to 40 years in prison for drug and racketeering violations. His sentence was reduced to 30 years in 1999, making Noriega eligible for parole in 2006.
- 1989 REPORT ON THE SITUATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN PANAMA by Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
- U.S. Marshals mugshot of Noriega
- Noriega suffers mild stroke, hospitalized in Miami (CNN.com)
- School of the Americas Watch
- CNN. Newsmaker Profiles: Manuel Noriega . United States of America: Cable News Network. 1988, 1992.
- Cole, Ronald. Grenada, Panama, and Haiti . United States of America: Joint History Office – Defense Technical Information Center, US Department of Defense. 1998, 1999.
- Noriega, Manuel and Eisner, Peter. America's Prisoner -- The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega. Random House, 1997.