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Manuel Antonio Noriega (born February 11 1934) is a former general and the military dictator of Panamamarker from 1983 to 1989.

He was never, contrary to popular belief, officially the president of Panama, but held the post of "chief executive officer" for a brief period in 1989. The 1989 invasion of Panama by the United States removed him from power; he was captured, detained as a prisoner of war, and flown to the U.S. Noriega was tried on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering in April 1992. Noriega's US prison sentence ended in September 2007; pending the outcome of extradition requests by both Panama and France, he remains in prison as of 2009.


Born in Panama Citymarker, Noriega was a career soldier, receiving much of his education at the Military School of Chorrillos in Lima, Perumarker. He also received intelligence and counterintelligence training at the School of the Americas at Fort Gulickmarker in 1967, and also a course in psychological operations (Psyops) at Fort Bragg, North Carolinamarker. He was commissioned in the Panama National Guard in 1967 and promoted to lieutenant in 1968. It has been alleged that he was part of the military coup that removed Arnulfo Arias from power, although in Noriega's account of the 1968 coup, neither he nor his mentor Omar Torrijos were involved. In the power struggle that followed, including a failed coup attempt in 1969, Noriega supported Torrijos. He received a promotion to lieutenant colonel and was appointed chief of military intelligence by Torrijos. In this post, he conducted a campaign against peasant guerrillas in western Panama, and there are allegations that he orchestrated the "disappearances" of political opponents. However, Noriega claims that, following Torrijos' instructions, he negotiated an amnesty for about 400 defeated guerrilla fighters, enabling them to return from exile in Honduras and Costa Rica. According to statements made by retired United States Navy admiral and former Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner in 1988, Noriega became a CIA asset in the early 1970s.

Omar Torrijos was succeeded as Commander of the Panamanian National Guard by Colonel Florencio Flores Aguilar. One year later, Flores was succeeded by Rubén Darío Paredes, and Noriega became chief of staff. The Guard was renamed as the Panamanian Defense Forces. Paredes resigned as Commander to run for the presidency. He ceded his post as Commander of the Forces to Noriega. The two men made a deal in which Paredes would run as the Democratic Revolutionary Party's candidate for president. However, Noriega reneged on the deal.

CIA involvement and drug trafficking

Noriega worked with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from the late 1950s to the 1980s, and was on the CIA payroll for much of this time, although the relationship had not become contractual until 1967.

Nonetheless, he retained U.S. support until February 4, 1989, when the Drug Enforcement Administration indicted him on federal drug charges. On February 25, President Eric Arturo Delvalle issued a decree declaring that Noriega was relieved of his duties. Noriega ignored the decree, but instead instructed the National Assembly, dominated by the PRD, to remove Delvalle from office; Delvalle fled the country. Noriega claims that on March 18, 1988, he met with United States Department of Statemarker officials William Walker and Michael Kozak, who offered him $2 million to go into exile in Spain. According to Noriega, he refused the offer. In early 1988, an Associated Press story alleged he attempted to buy thousands of Browning Hi-Power pistols from U.S. businessman and arms trader Leo Wanta.

The U.S. saw Noriega as a double agent (his State Department nickname was "rent-a-colonel" ) and believed that he gave information not only to the U.S. and U.S. allies Taiwan and Israel, but also to communist Cuba. He also sold weapons to the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the late 1970s.

Senator John Kerry's 1988 Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations concluded that "the saga of Panama's General Manuel Antonio Noriega represents one of the most serious foreign policy failures for the United States. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, Noriega was able to manipulate U.S. policy toward his country, while skillfully accumulating near-absolute power in Panama. It is clear that each U.S. government agency which had a relationship with Noriega turned a blind eye to his corruption and drug dealing, even as he was emerging as a key player on behalf of the Medellín Cartel (a member of which was notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar)." Manuel Noriega was allowed to establish "the hemisphere's first 'narcokleptocracy'".

De facto rule of Panama

Noriega enhanced his position as de facto ruler in August 1983 by promoting himself to full general. Noriega, being paid by the CIA, extended new rights to the United States, and, despite the canal treaties, allowed the U.S. to set up listening posts in Panama. He aided the American-backed guerrillas in Nicaragua by acting as a conduit for U.S. money, and according to some accounts, weapons. However, Noriega insists that his policy during this period was essentially neutral, allowing partisans on both sides of the various conflicts free movement in Panama, as long as they did not attempt to use Panama as a base of military operations. He rebuffed requests by Salvadoran rightist Roberto D'Aubuisson to restrict the movements of leaders of the leftist Salvadoran insurgent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in Panama, and likewise rebuffed demands by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the United States Marine Corps that he provide military assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras. Noriega insists that his refusal to meet North's demands was the actual basis for the U.S. campaign to oust him.

The Panama legislature declared Noriega "chief executive officer" of the government, formalizing a state of affairs that had existed for six years.

In October 1984, Noriega allowed the first presidential elections in 16 years. When the initial results showed former president Arnulfo Arias on his way to a landslide victory, Noriega halted the count. After brazenly manipulating the results, the government announced that the PRD's candidate, Nicolás Ardito Barletta Vallarino, had won by a slim margin of 1,713 votes. Independent estimates suggested that Arias would have won by as many as 50,000 votes had the election been conducted fairly.

About this time, Hugo Spadafora, a vocal critic of Noriega who had been living abroad, accused Noriega of having connections to drug trafficking and announced his intent to return to Panama to oppose him. He was seized from a bus by a death squad at the Costa Rican border. Later, his decapitated body was found, showing signs of extreme torture, wrapped in a United States Postal Service mailing bag. His family and other groups called for an investigation into his murder, but Noriega stonewalled any attempts at an investigation. Noriega was in Paris at the time of the murder which was alleged by some to have been at the direction of his Chiriquí Province commander, Luis Córdoba.

A conversation captured on wiretap between Noriega (in Paris) and Córdoba:
  • Córdoba: "We have the rabid dog."
  • Noriega: "And what does one do with a dog that has rabies?"

President Barletta was visiting New York City at the time. A reporter asked him about the Spadafora matter, and he promised an investigation. Upon his return to Panama, he was summoned to FDP headquarters and told to resign. He was replaced by First Vice President Eric Arturo Delvalle. As a friend and former student of George Schultz, Barletta had been considered "sacrosanct" by the United States, and his dismissal signaled a marked downturn in the relations between the U.S. and Noriega.

Omar Torrijos died in a plane accident in 1981. Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera, a former associate of Noriega, claimed that the actual cause for the accident was a bomb and that Noriega was behind the incident. Herrera, a former member of Noriega's inner circle, told Panama's main opposition newspaper, La Prensa, that Noriega was behind Spadafora's murder, many other killings and disappearances as well. This resulted in an immediate outcry from the public.

The "Civic Crusade", which opposed Manuel Noriega, was formed in 1981. Supporters of Noriega referred to the Civic Crusade as a creature of the rabiblancos or "white-tails", the wealthy elite of European extraction that dominated Panamanian commerce and that had dominated Panamanian politics before the advent of Torrijos. Noriega, like Torrijos, was dark-skinned and claimed to represent the majority population who were poor and of Zambo heritage (mixed African and Amerindian ancestry). Noriega supporters mocked the demonstrations of the Civic Crusade as "the protest of the Mercedes-Benz," deriding the wealthy ladies for banging on Teflon-coated pots and pans rather than the cruder and louder pots and pans traditionally banged by the poor in South American protests, or sending their maids to protest for them. Many rallies were held, with the use of white cloths as the symbol of the opposition. Noriega was always one step ahead of them however, having informants within their groups notify his police in advance and routinely rounded up leaders and organizers the night before rallies. All of the peaceful rallies were brutally dispersed by Noriega's army and paramilitary forces known as the Dignity Battalions. Many people were beaten severely, incarcerated, and killed during the protests. Meanwhile he arranged rallies of his own, often under threat (for example, taxi drivers were told they had to attend a rally in support of Noriega or lose their licenses). Noriega claims that the Civic Crusade was the handiwork of U.S. Embassy chargé d'affaires John Maisto, who arranged for Civic Crusade leaders to travel to the Philippines to learn the tactics of the U.S.-supported movement to overthrow Ferdinand Marcos.

The 1989 election

The elections of May 1989 were surrounded by controversy. A PRD-led coalition nominated Carlos Duque, publisher of the country's oldest newspaper, La Estrella de Panamá. Most of the other political parties banded behind a unified ticket of Guillermo Endara, a member of Arias' Authentic Panameñista Party, along with vice-presidential candidates Ricardo Arias Calderón (no relation to Arnulfo Arias) and Guillermo Ford.

According to Guillermo Sanchez Koster, the opposition alliance knew that Noriega planned to rig the count, but had no way of proving it. They found a way through a loophole in Panamanian election law. The alliance, with the support of the Roman Catholic Church, set up a count based directly on results at the country's 4,000 election precincts before the results were sent to district centers. Noriega's lackeys swapped fake tally sheets for the real ones and took those to the district centers but by this time the opposition's more accurate count was already out. It showed Endara winning in a landslide even more massive than 1984, beating Duque by a 3-to-1 margin. Noriega had every intention of declaring Duque the winner regardless of the actual results. However, Duque knew he had been badly defeated and refused to go along.

Rather than display the results, Noriega voided the election, claiming "foreign interference," making it impossible to assure the results were valid. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, there as an observer, denounced Noriega, saying the election had been "stolen," as did Bishop Marcos McGrath.

The next day, Endara, Arias Calderón and Ford rolled through the old part of the capital in a triumphant motorcade, only to be intercepted by a detachment of Noriega's paramilitary Dignity Battalions. Arias Calderón was protected by a couple of troops, but Endara and Ford were badly beaten. Images of Ford running to safety with his shirt covered in blood were broadcast around the world. When the 1984-89 presidential term expired, Noriega named a longtime associate, Francisco Rodríguez, as acting president. The United States, however, recognized Endara as the new president.

American invasion of Panama

The U.S. imposed economic sanctions, and in the months that followed, a tense standoff went on between the U.S. military forces (stationed in the canal area) and Noriega's troops. On 15 December 1989, the PRD-dominated legislature spoke of "a state of war" between the United States and Panama. Noriega subsequently claimed that this statement referred to U.S. actions against Panama, and did not represent a declaration of hostilities by Panama. The U.S. forces conducted regular 'freedom of movement' maneuvers and operations, such as Operation Sand Flea and Operation Purple Storm. Psychological warfare designed to harass the enemy, the US military contended the exercises were justified by the Panama Canalmarker Treaty of 1980 (Torrijos-Carter Treaties), which guaranteed the US forces freedom of movement in the country in defense of the Canal. Panama considered the exercises themselves a violation of the treaties, and Noriega called them acts of war against Panama.

On the other hand, Noriega's forces are said to have engaged in routine harassment of U.S. troops and civilians. Three incidents in particular occurred very near the time of the invasion, and were mentioned by US President George H.W. Bush as a reason for invasion.In a 16 December incident four U.S. personnel were stopped at a roadblock outside PDF headquarters in the El Chorrillo neighborhood of Panama City. The United States Department of Defensemarker claimed that the servicemen were unarmed and in a private vehicle and that they attempted to flee the scene only after their vehicle was surrounded by a crowd of civilians and PDF troops. The PDF claimed the Americans were armed and on a reconnaissance mission.

While returning from a restaurant in Panama City, Second Lieutenant Robert Paz of the United States Marine Corps was stopped and harassed; attempting to flee the scene, he was shot and killed. The Los Angeles Times reported that 2nd Lieutenant Paz was a member of the 'Hard Chargers', a group not sanctioned by the military whose goal was to agitate members of the PDF.

According to an official U. S. military report "witnesses to the incident, a U.S. naval officer and his wife were assaulted by Panamanian Defense Force soldiers while in police custody".

The United States invasion of Panama was launched on December 20, 1989. Losses on the U.S. side were 24 troops, plus 3 civilian casualties. Statistics of the number of Panamanian civilian deaths remain disputed, the New York Times and Newsweek magazine reported between 202-220. The conflict also caused some considerable internal displacement, with 20,000 to 30,000 having been rendered homeless. Probably the majority of those resulted from a fire that devastated much of a poor area of Panama City that surrounded the Comandancia, a fortified headquarters that was shelled.

On December 22 the Organization of American Statesmarker passed a resolution deploring the invasion and calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops, in addition to a separate resolution condemning the violation of the diplomatic status of the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama by US Special Forces who had entered the building. On 29 December, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted 75–20 with 40 abstentions to condemn the invasion as a flagrant violation of international law. According to a CBS poll, 92% of Panamanian adults supported the U.S. incursion, and 76% wished that U.S. forces had invaded in October during the coup. However, the Panamanian surveys were completed in the wealthy, English-speaking neighborhoods in Panama City, among Panamanians most likely to support US actions.


In 1989 the general was overthrown and captured during Operation Nifty Package, as part of the United States invasion of Panama. He was detained as a prisoner of war, and later taken to the United Statesmarker.

Noriega fled during the invasion, and a manhunt ensued. He threatened that he would call for guerilla warfare if the Apostolic Nuncio did not give him refuge. He was discovered to be in the Apostolic Nunciature, the Holy See's embassy in Panama. U.S. troops set up a perimeter outside this building. The Nuncio and his staff attempted to compel Noriega to leave on his own accord.

During the resulting stand-off, U.S. forces bombarded the embassy with loud music played through boomboxes. According to the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the purpose of this was to prevent the use of parabolic microphones to eavesdrop on negotiations taking place within the embassy. The noise exerted psychological pressure on not only Noriega but others in the building. Though the Vatican wished for Noriega to be expelled from the Nunciature as well, it complained to President George H.W. Bush because of the disruptive noise, and U.S. troops were ordered to stop. After a demonstration a few days later by thousands of Panamanians demanding he stand trial for human rights violations, Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990.


Immediately after Noriega's apprehension, the standby crew of a USAF 8th Special Operations Squadron MC-130 Combat Talon at Howard AFBmarker was alerted, and within 12 minutes had its engines running. Accompanied by U.S. Marshals, DEA, and other federal law enforcement agents, Noriega was flown to Homestead Air Force Basemarker, under conditions of minimum radio communications. He was tried on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering in April 1992. His trial was held in Miami, Floridamarker, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

In 1992 he was convicted under federal charges of cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering in Miami, Florida. Sentenced to 40 years in prison (later reduced to 30 years), Noriega is held at the Federal Correctional Institution, Miami, Florida (FCI Miami).

The prosecution presented a case that has been criticized by numerous observers. The prosecution's case was completely reworked several times because problems developed with the witnesses, whose stories contradicted one another. The United States Attorney negotiated deals with 26 different drug felons, including Carlos Lehder, who were given leniency, cash payments, and allowed to keep their drug earnings in return for testimony against Noriega. Several of these witnesses had been arrested by Noriega for drug trafficking in Panama. Some witnesses later recanted their testimony, and agents of the CIA, Drug Enforcement Administration, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Israeli Mossad, who were knowledgeable about Central American drug trafficking, have publicly charged that accusations were embellished. Noriega was found guilty and sentenced on September 16, 1992, to 40 years in prison for drug and racketeering violations. His sentence was reduced to 30 years in 1999.


Manuel Antonio Noriega's inmate identification number is 38699-079.

In December 2004, he was briefly hospitalized after suffering a minor stroke.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons website as of 2009, does not give a projected release date for inmate Noriega. He may be handed over to another country for trial or imprisonment instead of being released into the public realm.

Under Article 85 of the Third Geneva Convention, Noriega is still considered a prisoner of war, despite his conviction for acts committed prior to his capture by the "detaining power" (the United States). This status has meant that he has his own prison cell furnished with electronics, which some have described as the "Presidential suite."

Noriega's prison sentence was reduced from 30 years to 17 years for good behaviour. After serving 17 years in detention and imprisonment, his prison sentence ended Sunday September 9, 2007. Noriega remains in prison as of 2009.

Extradition proceedings

France has also requested the extradition of Noriega after he was convicted of money laundering in 1999.In August 2007, a federal judge approved a request from the French government to extradite Noriega from the United States to France after his release. Noriega is facing an additional 10 years in a French prison, having been convicted in absentia for money laundering. Noriega has also received a long jail term in absentia in Panama for murder and human rights abuses.There is currently a legal battle being waged. Noriega appealed his extradition to France because he claims that country will not honor his legal status as a prisoner of war.In 1999, the Panamanian government sought the extradition of Noriega to face murder charges in Panama because he had been found guilty in absentia in 1995 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Apparently, he may be able to serve his sentence under house arrest due to his age.

It was reported that Noriega had been visited by evangelical Christians, who claimed that he had become a born-again Christian. On May 15-16, 1990, while Noriega still awaited trial, Clift Brannon, a former attorney-turned-preacher, and a Spanish interpreter, Rudy Hernandez, were allowed to visit the prisoner for a total of six hours in the Metropolitan Correctional Center of Dade County, Florida. Following their visit, Noriega wrote Brannon as follows:On completing the spiritual sessions that you as a messenger of the Word of God brought to my heart, even to my area of confinement as Prisoner of War of the United States, I feel the necessity of adding something more to what I was able to say to you as we parted. The evening sessions of May 15 and 16 with you and Rudy Hernandez along with the Christian explanation and guidance were for me the first day of a dream, a revelation. I can tell you with great strength and inspiration that receiving our Lord Jesus Christ as Savior guided by you, was an emotional event. The hours flew by without my being aware. I could have desired that they continue forever, but there was no time nor space. Thank you for your time. Thank you for your human warmth, for your constant and permanent spiritual strength brought to bear on my mind and soul. - With great affection, Manuel A. Noriega

Pending release

Noriega has stated his intention to return to Panama, and that he had no desire to return to politics.


  1. Noriega, Manuel and Eisner, Peter. America's Prisoner — The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega. Random House, 1997.
  2. Facts On File World News Digest, December 22, 1989, "U.S. Forces Invade Panama, Seize Wide Control; Noriega Eludes Capture." [1].
  3., Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Operation Just Cause, p 2, Retrieved on 10 February 2007
  4. International Development Research Centre, "The Responsibility to Protect", December 2001,
  5. Operation Just Cause: Panama Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  6. Thigpen, Col. Jerry L. (2001). The Praetorian STARShip: The Untold Story of the Combat Talon, Air University Press/Diane Publishing. ISBN 1-58566-103-1, p. 335. Col. Thigpen commanded the 8th SOS.
  7. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 'age ... 71'
  8. Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
  9. States line up to jail Noriega Philip Jacobson,, '70-year-old', 2006-02-15
  10. Manuel Noriega in Legal Limbo – Grant Him House Arrest Aviva Elzufon , Council on Hemispheric Affairs, June 5th, 2008
  11. New York Times: "General Noriega's lawyer confirmed that the general, who is being held at a Federal prison outside Miami, had been regularly visited there by the two Texas evangelists who brought about his conversion and was receiving weekly religious instruction from a Baptist layman."
  12. The Conversion of Manuel Noriega Joe R. Garman, Founder and President of A.R.M. Prison Outreach International

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