Will Noriega reveal the skeletons in Panama's closet?

8th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

Manuel Noriega returns to Panama without the trappings of political or military clout, but with something of incalculable value -- detailed knowledge of the skeletons that lurk in the Central American nation's closet.

The former dictator, 77, after more than two decades in prisons in the United States and France, returns home Sunday where he will continue to be incarcerated -- possibly for decades longer.

In addition to being a former strongman and military leader, Noriega also is a former CIA agent who delivered a trove of sensitive secrets to Washington during his years in its employ.

He remains an object of intense interest here because of his former ties to the CIA, and speculation is rife that he might divulge who else in Panama made their political and financial fortunes while secretly working for the US government.

Panama's current President Ricardo Martinelli said he, for one, would like "to know what happened to all those who in one way or another have been enriched at the expense of military and the state."

"We will learn a lot about the fortunes that were made in this country illegally," Martinelli said, after learning last month that French courts had given the go-ahead for extradite Noriega back to Panama.

After ruling Panama with a iron fist since 1983, Noriega was toppled by US troops in a December 20, 1989 military intervention.

He was extradited to the United States and convicted at trial on drug trafficking charges. After completing his prison term, he was sent to France, where he was convicted on money laundering charges.

Now that he is heading home, the question on the minds of many people here however is whether he will reveal details of his role as a covert operative in the US central intelligence agency.

Many fortunes were made in Panama during Noriega's dictatorship and there is speculation that he will be eager settle scores when he returns home.

Roberto Diaz Herrera, a former lieutenant colonel and longtime Noriega opponent, told AFP that the former dictator has information "if he wanted to cause harm to some people," including many "dinosaurs" who over the years have been fixtures.

But some said the only entity that ought to worry about what Noriega might say is the US government -- specifically its intelligence community.

"If anyone fears Noriega, it should be the CIA as an institution, and the whole apparatus of intrigue and corruption," said Diaz, who was imprisoned and exiled during the regime.

The speculation in Panama is that Noriega may have played a role in providing intelligence to the United States during the "Iran-Contra" scandal of the 1980s, which armed opponents of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, among other covert operations.

But while some believe that there could be explosive revelations from Noriega following his return here, others expect that he will mostly be an object of curiosity.

"It will be a tourist attraction. Tourists will want to know where he is and see. If they were paying, it would make a good recipe," said General Ruben Dario Paredes, a former head of Panama's national guard.

"Those who should be concerned about are those that have done business with him and have not paid their share in his family," he said.

But Paredes said he feels that there is little that Noriega could say that will matter at this point.

"He can say things that no longer make news," Paredes said.

For Mauro Zuniga, an opponent who was abducted and tortured during the dictatorship, Noriega's return mostly "will be a spectacle, a show.

He said that even if the former dictator begins to make uncomfortable revelations "his credibility will be in question," especially given that Noriega is a convicted drug trafficker and a rights violator.

A longtime intelligence chief who became the country's military ruler in 1983, Noriega ruled Panama until his overthrow in 1989 ordered by then US president George H.W. Bush.

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 drug cartel.

Martinelli has said Noriega will have to serve three 20-year jail terms for the abduction of opponents: Hugo Spadafora, a doctor and former deputy health minister, in 1985; Captain Moises Giroldi in 1989; and union activist Heliodoro Portugal in 1970.

But the former strongman's future remains uncertain, as Panama allows convicts 70 years and older to serve their sentences at home.

© 2011 AFP

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