Noriega: the brutal dictator who fell from US favor

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Manuel Noriega's extradition to France caps an amazing fall from grace for the former CIA informant who spent 17 years languishing in a US prison after being ousted as Panama's strong man ruler.

Extradited to France on Monday to answer money laundering charges, General Noriega was a ruthless and wily dictator who struck fear into the hearts of his Panamanian countrymen during his 1983-1989 rule.

Accused of turning his strategically important Central American nation into a major transit hub for illegal drugs and even suspected of being a double agent for communist Cuba, he was soon dumped by his US backers.

Following a disputed 1989 election, president George W.H. Bush sent in an invasion force that led to his humiliating surrender on January 3, 1990 from the Vatican embassy in Panama City, where he had been holed up for days being blasted with loud music by the US military.

The "prisoner-of-war" soon became a convicted felon as an April 1992 trial in Miami, Florida saw him convicted on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering.

His ignominy was complete Monday as the US washed their hands of their one-time ally, dispatching the 75-year-old on an Air France jet from Miami after he had spent more than two decades in American custody.

Born to a poor family with Colombian roots in 1934, Noriega abandoned his early dreams of becoming a psychiatrist due his lack of means, enlisting instead in the military.

It was here he found his calling and was soon promoted to lieutenant.

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 1968-1981, and was promoted to head of the Panama's secret police.

This brought him into close contact with American spies, including 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, a close link that was to stay in place for many years, and for which he was handsomely rewarded earning about 320,000 dollars from 1955 to 1986.

But as rumors began to swirl in the early 1970s that Noriega was involved in illegal drug-trafficking between Latin America and the United States, the US administration decided it might be time to abandon their old ally.

Plans were drawn up to assassinate Noriega, who was becoming an increasing embarrassment to the US administration, but at the last minute then president Richard Nixon refused to give the green light.

Throughout the 1970s, and despite mounting accusations that he was orchestrating the disappearances of Panamanian opposition figures, Noriega showed his political deftness at staying in power.

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 only strengthened. Under the new military ruler, Ruben Dario Paredes del Rio, he was promoted to chief-of-staff, and given a general's stars.

Within a short period of time, power had effectively concentrated in Noriega's hands and in 1983 he succeeded Paredes as military ruler.

As the country's new strong man, repression increased and the United States sought to undermine their former ally.

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 still retained some popular support, and led the US Senate to call for him to step down pending an official inquiry.

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 in laundering drug money in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes.

© 2010 AFP

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