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

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The Interview cancelled: From supporting the Ku Klux Klan to appeasing the Nazis, Hollywood has a rich history of caving in

Boyd Tonkin
A female US soldier eats breakfast while on tour in Afghanistan  

All’s fair in love and war? Not until female soldiers can join the men on the front line

Rosie Millard
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas