Noriega, Panama's brutal strongman ousted by US invasion

11th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

Manuel Noriega's return to Panama seals a fall from grace that saw the one-time strongman and CIA informant ousted by the United States and spending the last 20 years languishing in foreign prisons.

The pock-marked 77-year-old general, nicknamed "Pineapple Face", was a ruthless and wily dictator who struck fear into the hearts of his Panamanian countrymen during his 1983-89 rule.

Born to a poor family with Colombian roots, Noriega abandoned his early dreams of becoming a psychiatrist and enlisted instead in the military.

In 1968 he joined the military coup that toppled president Arnulfo Arias and began rapidly rising through the ranks as he defended his mentor, the general Omar Torrijos, in the ensuing power struggle.

Noriega became one of the closest confidants of Torrijos, the country's de facto leader from 1968-81, and was promoted to the head of Panama's secret police.

This brought him into close contact with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which was keeping a close eye on the country to protect the strategic Panama Canal, then under US administration.

Noriega soon became a regular informant for the Americans and was handsomely rewarded to the tune of about $320,000 -- although he claimed at his trial that he was a prize asset that cost the CIA millions.

As rumours began to swirl in the early 1970s that he was involved in illegal drug-trafficking between Latin America and the United States, the US administration decided to abandon their old ally.

Plans were drawn up to assassinate Noriega but at the last minute then-president Richard Nixon refused to give the green light.

Throughout the 1970s Noriega showed his political deftness by shaking off mounting accusations that he was orchestrating the disappearances of Panamanian opposition figures.

By the start of the 1980s, he had earned a reputation as the most feared man in Panama.

When Torrijos died in a mysterious plane crash in 1981, Noriega's position strengthened. Under the new military ruler, Ruben Dario Paredes del Rio, he was promoted to chief-of-staff, and given a general's stars.

In short order, power had effectively concentrated in Noriega's hands and in 1983 he succeeded Paredes as military ruler.

Under Noriega as the country's new strongman, repression increased and the United States sought to undermine his regime.

A CIA leak in 1986 led The New York Times to publish an article linking Noriega to the decapitation two years earlier of one of his opponents, Hugo Spadafora.

The following year one of his former chiefs-of-staff dealt Noriega a new blow when he accused his ex-boss of corruption and electoral fraud, as well as being behind the plane crash in which Torrijos died.

The accusations triggered huge demonstrations in Panama, even though Noriega retained some popular support, and led the US Senate to call for him to step down.

Noriega refused and defiantly stayed in power with critics maintaining that the country became a crossroads in Latin America's drug trade, particularly in helping Colombia's powerful Medellin cartel to launder drug money in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes.

Following a disputed 1989 election, president George H.W. Bush sent in an invasion force that led to Noriega's humiliating surrender after being holed up for days in the Vatican embassy in Panama City.

He was extradited to the United States and convicted at trial on drug trafficking charges. He spent 21 years in a Miami prison on drug charges, and then was extradited to France, where he was sentenced to six years prison for laundering money for the Medellin cartel.

In Panama, he is expected to have to begin serving the lengthy sentences he received in absentia there after convictions for human rights violations.

© 2011 AFP

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