Murderer, drug trafficker, dictator, and at one time in history, a U.S. ally, Manuel A. Noriega died on Tuesday at the age of 83 in Panama. An employee of Santo Tomás Hospital in Panama City intimated that Noriega had been in failing health for years.
President Juan Carlos Varela of Panama, within two hours of Noriega’s death, tweeted, “The death of Manuel A. Noriega closes a chapter in our history; his daughters and his relatives deserve to bury him in peace.”
That chapter was a violent and relentless, greed-fueled march for decades, in a world at times paralyzed by the lingering nuclear threat during the last days of the cold war. Deftly maneuvering his way into the U.S. government, Noriega became a CIA asset in the 1970’s, with full knowledge of Congress, and considered an ally in the war on drugs:
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.
And he was also aiding the drug cartels, raking in massive payola, and amassing a fortune playing both sides of the aisle. His estimated net worth at the time of his death was over $100 million dollars in cash, property and stock assets.
Noriega was a man who craved power and prestige and declared himself El Man of Panama in 1983. But his cockiness, and thumbing his nose at the U.S. by flagrantly double-crossing the government, would lead to his downfall:
The United States Senate in 1986 overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling on Panama to remove Mr. Noriega from the Panamanian Defense Forces pending an investigation of charges of corruption, election fraud, murder and drug trafficking. The next year, after Congress cut off military and economic aid, Panama defaulted on its foreign debt payments, and its economy contracted by a startling 20 percent. But Noriega wasn’t ready to step down from his lucrative post:
He grew more belligerent, however, and by 1989 American patience had run out. Lawmakers in Washington, some of them worried about the coming turnover of the canal to Panama, began asking more questions about his ties to drug traffickers. Opposition in Panama had also grown, largely ignited by the torture and murder in 1985 of Dr. Hugo Spadafora, a longtime critic who had publicly accused Mr. Noriega of being in league with Colombian drug cartels.
The final nail was hammered into Noriega’s coffin after an unarmed U.S. soldier was murdered, another wounded, and a third was arrested and beaten while threatening to rape and assault the soldier’s wife. President G.H.W. Bush had been pushed too far, and he invaded Panama with 27,000 troops:
A White House statement as the invasion got underway said the United States had acted “to protect American lives, restore the democratic process, preserve the integrity of the Panama Canal treaties and apprehend Manuel Noriega.” Political commentators assigned other motives, including a way for Mr. Bush to shake off perceptions of weakness; his poll numbers rose significantly after the invasion.
And just like that, Noriega’s reign of terror ceased as the mighty Americans removed the dictator from power. The lesson, however, came with the loss of American lives. In a U.S. Senate subcommittee report, the government acknowledged the mistake of letting Noriega get one foot in the door of any American strategic plan:
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.”
What would they have expected from a man who gave rousing, public speeches, swung a machete at his audience, and kept an army of stuffed ‘Teddy’ Bears, dressing them in fatigues? Maybe the CIA didn’t think that was a tad crazy, but my guess is, the average Joe would’ve been waving a red flag, high overhead and saying, “not a good choice for an asset!”
But he was ousted and has served prison time in the U.S., France and finally, home in Panama. While incarcerated in a U.S. federal prison, Noriega penned a book detailing his version of the long and bloody road to becoming Inmate 41586, in which he stated, “No one can avoid the judgment of history,” he wrote. “I only ask to be judged on the same scale of treachery and infamy of my enemies.”
Mr. Noriego, you will indeed be judged on treachery and infamy. But only time will tell if the perception of an inglorious, power hungry, and greed filled dictator will survive the telling of history yet to be written. Adios, El Man, Adios.