Updated at 8:00 p.m., Dec. 11
REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Manuel Noriega, the onetime military dictator of Panama who also moonlighted as a CIA spy and successful drug-trafficking money launderer, was flown home Sunday after two decades in U.S. and French prisons and facing yet more jail time in Panama.
Television footage from a Panama airport Sunday evening showed a stooped man covered in a hooded parka arriving and being loaded onto a wheelchair for transport to the Renacer (“Rebirth”) prison.
“Gen. Noriega wanted to return and face the charges against him,” one of his attorneys, Julio Berrios, said in a crush at the airport, as a small knot of angry relatives of Noriega’s victims shouted in the background.
Noriega returned to Panama for the first time since the 1989 U.S. invasion of that strategic isthmus nation -- at the time, the largest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War -- wrested him from power.
For decades, Noriega had functioned as an ally of Washington, recruited by the CIA in the 1960s, serving as a secret envoy to Cuba’s Fidel Castro. He operated at times to support leftist movements in Latin America, at other times to support U.S. efforts to fight them.
Eventually he also started receiving millions of dollars from Colombia’s notorious Medellin cartel to help protect shipments of tons of cocaine to the U.S., a relationship that finally led to his downfall and the decision of President George H.W. Bush to invade Panama.
Noriega's return has unleashed a wide debate in Panama, forcing citizens to relive dark days of his regime (link in Spanish). He stole elections, sent out thugs called “Dignity Battalions” to beat up opponents, and had enemies jailed and killed. Some in Panama, however, think he’s been punished enough, while others remain adamant that he spend the rest of his days a prisoner. A new law would allow him to serve time under house arrest because of his advanced age; some relatives of his victims angrily oppose that.
"We have to be ready for all the possibilities in all aspects,” Panama’s Foreign Minister Roberto Henriquez said. “Noriega inspires very big emotions, and Noriega’s life could very well be at risk in Panama.”
There is something very time-warpy about the Noriega story, a throwback to Cold War-era politics, when U.S. governments were financing proxy wars against leftists and Panama was a kind of Central American Casablanca.
Compared to most Latin American and Caribbean dictators, Noriega has spent an inordinate time in prison. Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, for example, was forced into exile -- along the French Riviera -- in 1986 and never went to jail. He returned home to Haiti in January and remains a free man. Chile’s Augusto Pinochet evaded international efforts to prosecute him and died of old age at his family home.
Panama today is a very different place from what Noriega left. Its skyline is chock-a-block full of skyscrapers and luxury condos, and much of what was once the U.S.-run Panama Canal Zone has given way to huge development projects. Yet Panama may be even more of a haven for the kind of money-laundering that Noriega was convicted of practicing. U.S. law enforcement officials say its sprawling free-trade zone provides perfect cover for launderers using bogus commerce to hide, move and launder billions of dollars in illicit drug proceeds.
And President Roberto Martinelli, a conservative millionaire, runs a government widely criticized as corrupt. He, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, has shown undemocratic tendencies including a disturbing interest in spying on political enemies.
Noriega was convicted in U.S. courts on drug-trafficking charges and served 17 years in prison there, before being sent last year to face charges in France. In Panama, he was convicted in absentia of killing Hugo Spadafora, a dissident who exposed Noriega’s drug-trafficking operations. Spadafora’s decapitated body was discovered near Panama’s border with Costa Rica in 1985.
-- Tracy Wilkinson
Photo: Manuel Noriega's booking photo after his arrest by U.S. drug agents in Miami on Jan. 4, 1990. Credit: Reuters.