Manuel Noriega, obituary: Panama dictator worked with CIA while murdering political opponents

One of Noriega's biggest mistakes was to order personally the execution and beheading of one of his most outspoken opponents ‘like a rabid dog’

Phil Davison
Tuesday 30 May 2017 10:08 BST
Noriega in 1988, the year he was indicted by the US on drug-trafficking charges
Noriega in 1988, the year he was indicted by the US on drug-trafficking charges

Disgraced former Panamanian General Manuel Noriega was a ruthless dictator, domestic spook, convicted murderer, money-launderer, big-time drug runner for Colombian cocaine druglords and a double agent between the CIA and Fidel Castro's Cuba. To some of his friends, however, including English ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn, he was a loveable rogue. In the 1980s, when he was nicknamed “Pineapple Face” because of severe acne, he stood up to the US but went one step too far when he swung a machete around his head and declared Panama was “in a state of war” with America.

Not great timing. For one thing, the major US networks filmed the machete incident, which was never going to go down well with a US President from Texas, George HW Bush. What's more, another anti-US dictator, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, was in dispute with neighbouring Kuwait and was building up his forces with a possible view to invasion (which he did the following year, 1990). President Bush did not fancy taking on two dictators at the same time. Just before Christmas 1989, he ordered US paratroopers into Panama and within two weeks Noriega surrendered.

The $300m Noriega was said by US investigators to have amassed as his personal fortune became useless. He was convicted in the US for drug-trafficking, racketeering and money-laundering and in 1992 was sentenced to 40 years in prison in Miami, later reduced to 30 years. In the end, he was released early by the US but only because both France and Panama had called for his extradition on other charges. But the US was happy to get rid of him and see him complete his penance elsewhere.

He was shipped to Paris in 2010 and sentenced in July to seven years' jail for money-laundering by buying luxury Paris apartments with drug proceeds worth $3m. Like the US, however, France, having administered their own justice, released him after just over a year, in September 2011, and put him, heavily guarded, on a plane to his native Panama, where he arrived on 11 December that year. If Noriega was expecting a triumphant welcome home from his former supporters, it was not to be. Panama jailed him for 20 years.

In early 2017, he was released from prison for a temporary period of house arrest to allow him to have an operation to remove a benign brain tumour. In early March, he was said to be critically ill and in a coma after suffering a haemorrhage.

Doctors decided to attempt further surgery to treat the cerebral bleeding, but he died late on Monday, local time, in Panama City's Santo Tomas hospital, the secretary of state for communication Manuel Dominguez announced. He was 83.

For a foreign correspondent covering Panama in the 1980s, Noriega was pure gold. Panama rarely got covered in Europe but “Cara de Piña” (Pineapple Face) guaranteed headlines. Charismatic he was not. Fascinating, yes. Kind of a Donald Trump of his time. Noriega did not like foreign reporters, even Panamanian reporters, except the ones he paid off with cash in US dollars. These were pre-Twitter days so his only resource was to invite us foreign correspondents to his bunker-style office at the Panamanian Defence Forces headquarters. Like Trump, he was convinced he was the best thing ever to have happened for his country. In that, of course, he was soon proved wrong.

One of his major mistakes in the 1980s was to order the execution of one of his most outspoken opponents, Hugo Spadafora, a handsome, charismatic man who had uncovered Noriega’s collaboration with the Colombian drug lords Pablo Escobar and Carlos Lehder in getting massive amounts of cocaine into the US. Spadafora's body was found in a large US Postal Service mail bag. His head had been sawn off with a butcher's knife and was never found.

​Noriega was in Paris at the time of Spadafora's murder but an intelligence wiretap between one of his Panamanian commanders, Luis Cordoba, and Noriega read:

Cordoba: “We have the rabid dog.”

Noriega: “And what does one do with a dog that has rabies?” Then Noriega hung up.

In May 1989, during a general election that was meant to put Noriega's man Carlos Duque in power, pro-Noriega hoodlums ironically known as the Dignity Battalions took to the streets of Panama to intimidate opponents. It was a normal occurrence. But this time, two American photographers -- Les Stone and Ron Haviv -- happened to be present. They photographed opposition candidate Guillermo “Billy” Ford being beaten with iron bars by Noriega's men. Haviv's photo of Ford being beaten, his white guayabera shirt drenched in blood, hit the cover of TIME magazine on 22 May 1989. President George HW Bush could not help but take note.

On 20 December, 1989, Bush launched Operation Just Cause without warning. Some 27,000 American troops landed: 23 of them died, and hundreds of Panamanians, mostly civilians, were killed in crossfire. The Panamanian Defence Forces headquarters, where I had met Noriega years before, was virtually levelled. The US forces surrounded and fired upon the Marriott Hotel, where the foreign correspondents were staying. Spanish photographer Juantxu Rodriguez, working for El Pais, was shot dead by an American soldier, and a famous image of Juantxu lying dead with his camera by his head still haunts foreign correspondents and photographers to this day. The American forces also shot and wounded an English photographer.

For two weeks, Noriega hid out in the residence of the papal nuncio, the Vatican ambassador Monsignor Juan Laboa, where he was untouchable for diplomatic reasons. That meant the US forces could not shoot him out. So the American troops used a different approach. They brought out massive loudspeakers of Hyde Park concert proportions and bombarded the Vatican embassy with sound -- non-stop rock music day and night. With some glee, the Americans, including US Navy Seals, relied mostly on a song by The Clash: “I Fought the Law” (“...and the law won”). Even from way behind the loudspeakers, the noise was horrendous. Noriega, after the mediation of Monsignor Laboa, finally emerged on 3 January 1990. In an operation known as Nifty Package, he was flown to the US and the rest is history.

Manuel Antonio Noriega Morena was born in 1934 (although some biographies, edited by him, claimed he was born four years later) in the working-class El Chorrillo district of Panama City, which he would later make his base. His father was an accountant who had emigrated from Colombia, his mother his father's housekeeper. Noriega was of mixed Spanish, Amerindian and African origin and his moreno (dark) skin ensured him of peasant and working-class support in a country dominated by the so-called rabiblancos, or white-tails, the economic elite of mainly Spanish ancestry.

At the age of five, Noriega was given up by his father for adoption to a woman schoolteacher. The boy hoped to become a doctor but, lacking resources, ended up as a cadet at the Peruvian Military Academy in Lima. After joining Panama’s National Guard in 1967, he was sent for training at the renowned School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia, notorious for turning out some of Latin America’s most ruthless military dictators including Chile's Augusto Pinochet.

By the late 1970s, Noriega had become something of a protegé of Panama's military strongman leader Omar Torrijos. When Torrijos died in an unexplained plane crash in 1981, fingers were pointed at Noriega. Whatever the case, Noriega became the new strongman. And by the time he took formal power in 1983, Noriega was very much a key asset of the CIA.

In return for payments (whose amounts may never be known), he helped get US weapons, military equipment and cash to anti-communist forces in Central America, including the US-backed Contras fighting against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He allowed the US to set up listening posts in Panama aimed at monitoring the leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua while also channelling US money and weapons to the anti-Sandinista Contras.

By then, the CIA knew he was helping Colombian drug lords ship cocaine to the US but they turned a blind eye in return for his help. At the time, the Americans saw halting communism as more important than stopping cocaine entering their country, now proven to be a major mistake. Noriega's influence in the Central American civil wars was seen as more important than the damage cocaine was increasingly causing in the streets of the US.

What the CIA did not initially know was that Noriega was also dealing with Fidel Castro in Cuba and with the left-wing insurgencies in Nicaragua and other Central American countries, providing them with weapons but neglecting to put the proceeds into Panama's coffers. He began to get quite rich.

As a result of his wealth and power, he quickly won new friends, He had already befriended the English ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn, who lived in Panama City with her husband Dr Roberto Arias during Noriega's rise through the ranks. Dr Arias was a Panamanian politician and diplomat (as well as suspected guns and whisky smuggler, and serial womaniser) who was shot by a (political or love) rival in 1964. Tito Arias, a graduate of St John's College, Cambridge, remained a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic until his death in 1989, tended all that time by Dame Margot and his family.

Dame Margot recalled once sitting in her Panama City home when a beaming Noriega jumped up from behind her sofa wielding a pistol. It was Pineapple Face's idea of a joke, but didn't go down well with Dame Margot, who kicked him out. Dame Margot died of cancer in Panama City in 1991, by which time Noriega was behind bars in Miami.

Manuel Noriega's wife Felicidad was rarely seen in recent years but she is believed to survive him along with their daughters Lorena, Sandra and Thays.

Manuel Antonio Noriega Morena, born 11 February 1934, died 29 May 2017

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