Rupert Cornwell: Washington happy to banish this reminder of its failed past

Noriega Profile

Share
Related Topics

Manuel Noriega is a relic of a far-from-distant past in Central America – of small countries riddled with coups and corruption, military strongmen and right-wing dictators, most of them supported by the US, which justified its meddling as part of the Cold War struggle against Communism. Few participants in that dirty game were more skilful and ruthless than Noriega.

Born in 1934, he rose through the ranks of the Panama army and became the nation's dominant political figure after the death of Omar Torrijos in an air crash in 1981. Long before that, however, he had been enlisted by the CIA (on whose payroll he remained until 1988 when he was indicted in Florida on drugs charges).

By the 1980s Noriega was helping channel US support to its allies in the civil wars raging in Nicaragua and El Salvador. He was also reportedly a backchannel for contacts between the US and the Communist regime in Cuba. Not surprisingly, the agency considered him one of its most valuable regional assets.

Increasingly though, he played on both sides, providing aid for Cuba and Libya, and becoming heavily involved with drugs trafficking. The blatantly rigged election of May 1989 further worsened relations with Washington, and from that summer US forces in the Panama canal zone and Noriega's Panamanian Defence Force were in a state of quasi-war.

For Washington, the last straw was an incident in Panama City in which a US soldier was shot and killed. On 20 December 1989, President George Bush ordered an invasion to topple Noriega. Some 24,000 troops took part in Operation Just Cause, the country's largest US military endeavour since Vietnam.

The strongman fled to the Vatican embassy, but after much diplomatic manoeuvring and intense psychological pressure (including the playing of deafening hard rock music outside the mission), he handed himself over to US forces on 3 January 1990. In 1992 he was sentenced to 40 years in jail for drug trafficking and racketeering, reduced to 17 for good behaviour.

For Washington the saga was a huge embarrassment, producing a UN vote condemning the invasion as a violation of international law. A US Senate report described the Noriega affair as among the country's "most serious foreign policy failures".

It accused the US government agencies that dealt with him of "turning a blind eye to his corruption and drug dealing, even as he was emerging as a key player on behalf of the Medellin Cartel". Noriega, the report declared, had created "the hemisphere's first 'narco-kleptocracy'". In that sense however, he was also a sign of things to come. The drugs trade grew ever more extensive, lucrative and violent.

For many Americans, Noriega's name today means little or nothing. But his own country is surely much relieved that the former dictator has been dispatched to France, rather than being allowed home. The last thing Panama wants is the return of a man who knows where so many bodies are buried – in the literal as well as figurative sense.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
The Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf heads the inquiry  

Why should Fiona Woolf be expected to remember every dinner date?

Mark Steel
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster