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

Noriega Profile

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.