Noriega's rule in Panama was marked by repression of the media, an expansion of the military, and the persecution of political opponents, effectively controlling the outcomes of any elections. In 1988, Noriega was indicted by the United States on drug trafficking charges in Miami. During the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, he was removed from power, captured, detained as a prisoner of war, and flown to the United States. Noriega was tried on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering in April 1992. On September 16, 1992, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison, which was later reduced to 30 years.
Noriega's U.S. prison sentence ended in September 2007; pending the outcome of extradition requests by both Panama and France, for convictions in absentia for murder in 1995 and money laundering in 1999. France was granted its extradition request in April 2010. He arrived in Paris on April 27, 2010, and after the re-trial that is a rule in France after any in absentia sentence, he was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in jail in July 2010. A conditional release was granted on September 23, 2011, for Noriega to be extradited to serve 20 years in Panama. He returned to Panama on December 11, 2011. Noriega died at Hospital Santo Tomas in Panama City on May 29, 2017, two months after brain surgery.
Noriega was born in Panama City, into a relatively poor mestizo, or mixed-race, family with Native American, African, and Spanish heritage. Noriega's mother has been variously described as a cook or a laundress, while his father was an accountant. Neither had a lengthy presence in his life: his mother died of tuberculosis when he was still a child. Noriega was brought up by a godmother in a one-room apartment in the slum area of Terraplén. Authors and journalists have suggested that Noriega was in fact the illegitimate son of his father, Ricaurte Noriega, and his father's domestic worker, whose family name was Moreno.
Noriega was educated first at the Escuela República de México, and later at the Instituto Nacional, a well-regarded high school in Panama City that had produced a number of nationalist political leaders. He was described as an "oddly serious child," and as a bookish student, who was always neatly dressed by his punctilious godmother. During his time in Instituto Nacional he met his older brother Luis, also a student at the school. Manuel had not previously met his siblings. Luis was a socialist activist, and introduced Manuel to politics, including recruiting him into the Socialist Party's youth wing. At some point in school Manual began living with his brother. During his time in the Socialist youth group he took part in protests, as well as authoring articles criticizing the U.S. presence in Panama. He is reported to have begun his association with the U.S. intelligence services at this time, providing information about the activities of his comrades. He would continue to work with the U.S. intelligence services at various points till the 1980s. The U.S. also paid Noriega $10.70 payment in 1955, which would be the first of many payments he would receive for his activities. After graduating from the Instituto Nacional, Noriega won a scholarship to Chorrillos Military School in the Peruvian capital of Lima, with the help of Luis, who had by then received a position in the Panamanian embassy in Peru. He had previously harboured intentions of becoming a doctor, but was unable to secure a place in the medical school at the University of Panama. While in Peru he made the acquaintance of Roberto Díaz Herrera, who would later become a close ally.
Noriega married Felicidad Sieiro de Noriega, whom he had met in the 1960s, and the couple had three daughters; Lorena, Sandra and Thays Noriega. Siero had been a school teacher, and Noriega a member of the National Guard. Her family, of Basque heritage, was reported to have been unhappy with her marriage. Noriega was repeatedly unfaithful to his wife, who at one point expressed a desire for a divorce, though she changed her mind later.
Noriega graduated in 1962 with a specialization in engineering. He returned to Panama and was given a job as a common soldier in the Panama National Guard, and posted to Colón. He was given a commission as a sublieutenant soon after in September 1962. His commanding officer in Colón was Omar Torrijos, then a major in the National Guard: he would soon become an important supporter of Torrijos. Noriega's drunkenness and his tendency towards violence eventually even got him into trouble with Torrijos, his mentor and protector, who confined him to his quarters for a month in 1963. Nonetheless, Torrijos maintained his relationship with Noriega, ensuring they were always in the same command; he also brought Díaz Herrera into the same unit. Díaz Herrera and Noriega became both friends and rivals for the favor of Torrijos. Galván claims that Torrijos was able to help Noriega avoid consequences for raping a prostitute in 1963. Galván also wrote that Noriega developed a thuggish reputation, having allegedly raped a 13-year-old girl and then beaten her brother. For the former offence we was exiled for a few months to a remote outpost, again at the intervention of Torrijos, who helped him avoid a more serious punishment.
Noriega returned from exile to the province of Chiriquí, where Torrijos and Díaz Herrera were posted. The presidential election that year was contested by Arnulfo Arias, a native of that province. The sitting President, Rodolfo Chiari, ordered Torrijos to harass Arias's party members, to weaken his election bid. Torrijos passed this task on to Noriega, whose men arrested a number of people. Several prisoners said that they had been tortured; other stated they had been raped in prison. The brutality of Noriega's activities led to him being suspended for ten days, an item of information that was picked up by the U.S. intelligence services.
As a second lieutenant in 1966, Noriega spent many months taking courses at the School of the Americas at the United States Army's Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone. Journalist John Dinges has suggested that Torrijos sent Noriega to the school to help him "shape up" and live up to Torrijos's expectations. Noriega performed poorly in his classes in the school. However, in 1966 he received a promotion, and Torrijos found him a job as an intelligence officer in the "North Zone" of the National Guard. Shortly afterward he returned to the School of the Americas for more training. Over the various periods of time her spent there he participated in courses on infantry operations, counterintelligence, intelligence, and jungle operations. He also took a course in psychological operations at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Noriega's job required him to penetrate and disrupt the trade unions that had formed in the workforce of the United Fruit Company, and he proved adept at this work. His new superior officer Boris Martínez was a fervent anti-communist, and enforced strict discipline on Noriega. Reports have suggested that he continued to pass intelligence to the U.S. during this period, about the activities of the plantation workers. In 1967 the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson concluded that Noriega would be a valuable asset, as he was a "rising star" in the military. Noriega would continue to have a close relationship with the School of the Americas during his Presidency, partly due to the latter having an outpost in Panama. Officials from the Panamanian military were frequently given courses at the school free of charge. Noriega was proud of his relationship with the school, and would wear its crest on his military uniform, even until just before his capture.
Arnulfo Arias had been elected president in 1968 following a populist campaign. Soon after taking office he launched a purge against the National Guard, sending much of its staff into "diplomatic exile" or retirement. In response, Torrijos and a few other officers led a coup against him, ousting him after an eleven-day presidency. A power struggle followed between the various forces supporting the coup, and chiefly between Torrijos and Martínez. Noriega was an important supporter of Torrijos during struggle. When Arias's supporters launched a guerrilla uprising in his home province, Noriega as the head of intelligence played an important role in putting it down within a year. At the end of 1969 Torrijos went to Mexico on Holiday. A coup was launched in his absence, in which Noriega's loyalty allowed Torrijos to hang on to power, greatly enhancing his image. Noriega received a promotion to lieutenant colonel and was appointed chief of military intelligence by Torrijos in August 1970: he had gone from being a captain to a lieutenant colonel in just a year and a half, and according to Dinges, had left his undisciplined past behind him. Torrijos would retain power as a military ruler until 1981: during this time he negotiated the Torrijos–Carter Treaties with U.S. President Jimmy Carter, which ensured that control over the Panama Canal would pass to Panama in 1999. These treaties, as well as a new labor code that included maternity leave, collective bargaining rights, and bonus pay, made Torrijos popular in Panama despite the absence of democratic elections. Galván writes that his relationship with Noriega was symbiotic: Torrijos provided the political acumen, while Noriega enforced his decisions when they were unpopular, with force, when necessary. Noriega would provide intelligence, and carry out covert operations, that were critical to Torrijos successfully negotiating the release of the Panama canal from the U.S.
Noriega proved to be a very capable head of intelligence. In that position, he had 1300 Panamanians exiled whom he viewed as threats to the government. He also kept files on a number of officials within the military, the government, and the judiciary, which would later allow him to blackmail them. He also held the positions of the head of the political police, and head of immigration. His tenure was marked by intimidation and harassment of opposition parties and their leaders. He was described as doing much of Torrijos "dirty work". Journalist Frederick Kempe wrote in 1990 that Noriega had been linked to a series of bombings targeting U.S. territory that followed the administration of U.S. President Gerald Ford stepping back from negotiations about the Panama Canal during the prelude to the U.S Presidential election in 1976. The bombings highlighted to the U.S. government the difficulty of holding on to the Panama Canal Zone in the face of hostility within Panama. Kempe stated that the U.S. knew of Noriega's involvement in the bombings but decided to turn a blind eye toward them. In a December 1976 meeting with George H. W. Bush, then the Director of Central Intelligence, Noriega flatly denied involvement, instead suggesting that the CIA was responsible. Noriega also ordered the death of Hector Gallegos, a priest whose work at an agricultural cooperative was seen as a threat by the government: Gallegos's body is reported to have been thrown from helicopter into the sea.
The relationship between Noriega and the U.S. intelligence services became regularized in the 1970s, when Noriega was on the CIA payroll; the CIA made its first regular payment to Noriega in 1971. Previously he had been paid on a case-by-case basis. The CIA had valued him as an asset since the 1970s because he was willing to provide information about the Cuban government, and later about the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. On some occasions, the Panamanian embassy in Managua would be used by U.S. intelligence agents. Noriega was given access to CIA contingency funds, which he was supposed to use to improve his intelligence programs, but which he could spend with little accountability. The payments were as high as U.S. $100,000 in some years. However, the CIA was aware that Noriega was selling intelligence on the U.S. to Cuba at the same time. During negotiations for the Panama canal treaties, the U.S. government ordered its military intelligence to wiretap Panamanian officials. Noriega discovered this operation in early 1976, and instead of making it public, bribed the U.S. agents and bought the tapes himself; the incident came to be known as the "Singing Sergeants affiar". Although some intelligence officials wanted Bush to prosecute the soldiers involved, he declined to do so, because that would have exposed Noriega's role in the matter. The CIA did not report this incident to either the National Security Agency or the U.S. Justice Department. Noriega and Torrijos would later use their knowledge of the U.S. wiretapping operations to tilt the Panama canal negotiations in their favor.
Dinges wrote that in the early 1970s the U.S. Justice Department had enough evidence to bring an indictment of Noriega on drug charges in a U.S. court, but chose not to do so because of the diplomatic consequences involved. This evidence included the testimony of an arrested boat courier, and of a drug smuggler arrested in New York. Though Torrijos frequently promised the U.S. cooperation in dealing with drug smuggling, Noriega would have headed any effort at enforcement, and the U.S. began to see him as the real problem. Dinges writes that the U.S. government considered several options to move Noriega out of the drug trafficking business, including assassinating him, and linking him to a fictional plot against Torrijos. Though no assassination attempt was made, the other ploys may have been tried in the early 1970s, according to Dinges. Beginning in 1972, however, Dinges writes that the U.S. relaxed its efforts at trapping individuals involved with smuggling within the Panama government, possibly as a result of an agreement between Torrijos and U.S. president Richard Nixon. Moreover, during the same period Noriega was becoming a trusted ally of the CIA, including acting as the U.S. emissary to Cuba during negotiations following the Johnny Express incident. Noriega, too, made an effort during this period to portray Panama as a hub of enforcement against drug smuggling, possibly as a result of pressure from Torrijos. Noriega's drug-related activities came to the attention of the U.S. government once again during the ratification process for the Panama Canal treaties, but were once again downplayed by the U.S. intelligence services in order to get the treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate.
After the Nicaraguan Revolution was launched againt U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in August 1978, Torrijos and Noriega were initially supportive of the rebels, providing them surplus National Guard equipment and allowing Panama to be used as a cover for arms shipments from Cuba to Nicaragua. Torrijos sought for himself the same aura of "democratic respectability" that the Sandinista rebels had in Nicaragua, and so abandoned the title of "Maximum Leader" he had taken in 1972, and promised that democratic elections would be held in 1984. Noriega also arranged for weapons shipments purchased in the U.S., a deal on which he too made a profit. The U.S. discovered Noriega's role in supplying weapons, and though the episode proved embarrassing to the administration of Jimmy Carter, no charges were brought against Noriega because the U.S. did not wish to anger a friendly government, and the issue was rendered moot by the Sandinista victory in 1979. After Somoza's overthrow, Noriega continued to smuggle weapons, selling them to leftist guerrillas fighting the U.S.-backed authoritarian government in El Salvador. After a shipment of these was captured, Torrijos, who had friends in the Salvadoran military government, reprimanded Noriega, though the shipments did not stop altogether.
Torrijos died in a plane accident on July 31, 1981. A later investigation by the aircraft manufacturer stated it was an accident; Noriega's authority over the government investigation led to speculation about his involvement. Florencio Flores Aguilar had inherited Torrijos position, but true power lay with the trio of Noriega, Díaz Herrera, and Rubén Darío Paredes, who ranked just below him. Florez was removed in a quiet coup on March 3, 1982, after which Parades was made leader until 1983 by general agreement, after which the military would work together to ensure his election as the president in the polls scheduled for 1984. During this period Noriega rose to become a full Colonel and the chief of staff of the National Guard, effectively the second-highest rank in the country. He reformed the National Guard as the Panama Defense Forces (PDF), and with the financial assistance of the U.S., expanded and modernized it. The quick promotions they received earned him the loyalty of the officer corps. Among the steps he took to consolidate his control was to bring the various factions of the army together into the PDF. On August 12, 1983, in keeping with Noriega's earlier deal with Parades, Paredes handed over his position to Noriega, newly appointed a General, with the understanding that Noriega would allow him to stand for President. However, Paredes never received the political support he expected, and after assuming his new position Noriega reneged on the deal, telling Paredes he could not contest the election. Noriega, now head of the PDF, thus became the de facto ruler of the country.
Rather than become president, Noriega preferred to remain behind the scenes, and avoid the public scrutiny that came with the post. He also did not have a particular social or economic ideology. The idea he used to unify his supporters was military nationalism. The Partido Revolucionario Democrático (Democratic Revolutionary Party, PRD), which had been established by Torrijos, was used by Noriega as a political front for the National Guard. Noriega compelled the Panamanian Congress to pass Law 20, which was supposedly aimed at protecting the Panama canal from communists, and allowed a huge influx of U.S. weapons to the Panamanian military. The law also tripled the size of the military forces, and gave the National Guard control over immigration, customs, commercial transportation, railroads, and airports. Noriega's period in power saw significant capital flight from Panama; according to Kempe, this was at least in part because wealthy individuals worried their wealth would be seized by Noriega's men.
Noriega took control of most major newspapers by either buying a controlling stake in them, or by forcing them to shut down. The government also harassed, intimidated, or exiled individual journalists and editors. The newspaper La Prensa, which remained independent and was frequently critical of Noriega, had its staff intimidated and its offices damaged; eventually, it too was forced to close. In May 1984, Noriega allowed the first presidential elections in 16 years. Noriega and Díaz Herrera picked Nicolás Ardito Barletta Vallarino to be the candidate of the PRD, with the intention of keeping him under close control. When the initial results showed Arias, who had the support of much of the opposition, on his way to a landslide victory, Noriega halted the count. After brazenly manipulating the results, the government announced that Barletta 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. More than 60,000 votes were not included in the final count. The U.S. government was aware of this manipulation, but chose not to comment on it. His rule in Panama became increasingly repressive, even as the U.S. government of Ronald Reagan began relying on him in its covert efforts to undermine the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Despite recognizing the flaws in the election process, the U.S. accepted Barletta's election, and signaled a willingness to cooperate with him.
In the early 1980s, a number of military conflicts began in Latin America, as guerrilla warfare broke out in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Arms shipments from the U.S. in the area increased hugely as a result, as did drug smuggling to the U.S., particularly of cocaine. Dinges wrote that Noriega frequently received large payments, sometimes as high as $100,000 per shipment, in return for the smugglers receiving immunity from prosecution. A report by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency stated that Noriega held firm control over drug-related activities and money laundering through a groups of close associates within the military. In 1985 an opium plant was discovered on the Panama-Colombia border: Noriega was said to have a financial interest in it. On June 12, 1986 Seymour Hersh published an article in The New York Times, describing Noriega's involvement in drug smuggling and money laundering. The article stated that Noriega had been involved with drug cartels in Colombia for 20 years. Hersh recorded a U.S. White House official as saying that reducing Noriega's activities could greatly reduce international drug trafficking.
In addition to drug smuggling, Noriega's associates such as Floyd Carlton and Cesar Rodríguez also eventually became involved with money laundering: large sums from drug revenues were brought in from Miami and elsewhere to Panama for laundering, and Noriega received protection payments in these instances as well. American Steven Kalish also began a large scale business selling drugs, laundering money and selling hardware to the Panamanian military for large profits with Noriega's assistance. Dinges writes that in at the time of the 1984 election, Kalish was preparing to ship a load of marijuana worth U.S. $1.4 million through Panama, for which Noriega had agreed to provide false Panamanian customs stamps to help it avoid scrutiny in the U.S.; Noriega was to be payed $1 million for this exercise. However, beginning in 1984 Noriega appeared to reduce the scale of his operations, and even ordered a raid against a cocaine factory in the interior of Panama, a raid which he then emphasized as evidence of his cooperation with the U.S. in their fight against drugs. He also ordered a crackdown on money laundering operation by the Colombian cartel. Noriega's new image was symbolized by his being invited as a speaker in 1985 to Harvard University, for a conference on the role of the military in Central America's wars, a speech which received a lot of attention in the pro-government Panamanian press.
Noriega began supplying weapons to the M-19 rebel group in Colombia in 1981. On one occasion, the PDF supplied weapons to a small band of M-19 fighters who flew to Panama from Cuba, before an attack on Colombia's west coast. According to some reports, the M-19 also asked Noriega to mediate their negotiations with Columbian drug cartels in February 1982. A 1990 book discussing Noriega's administration stated that he had sold 5000 Panamanian passports to the Cuban government for use by its intelligence services. Noriega's direct involvement in moving weapons and drugs declined in the early 1980s; instead, he invested in legitimate businesses, and used these as a cover for money laundering operations, much of which were related to the drug trade. The U.S. intelligence service believed Noriega to have amassed a personal fortune in European banks as a result of his illegal activities, as well as owning two homes in Panama and one in France.
Noriega acted as a conduit for U.S. support to the Contra militants in Nicaragua for many years, including funds and weapons. He allowed the CIA to establish listening posts in Panama, and also helped the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government against the leftist Salvadoran insurgent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. U.S. spy ships used bases in Panama in their operations against the Nicaraguan government, and much of the intelligence gathered by these ships was processed in the U.S. bases in Panama. Noriega permitted these activities despite the Panama Canal treaties restricting the use of the U.S. bases to protecting the canal.
Noriega had a working relationship with U.S. Colonel Oliver North by 1985. Noriega offered to help North assassinate or sabotage Sandinista leaders in return for North helping Noriega improve his image with the U.S. government. In June 1985 Noriega agreed to train soldiers in Panama for an invasion of Nicaragua in 1986. Noriega has been reported to have played a role in the Iran–Contra affair in the mid-1980s, in which the proceeds of arms sales to Iran were smuggled to support the Contras. Noriega's trial in 1991–92 revealed that he had been paid at least $320,000 by the U.S. Journalists and historians have suggested the figure was much higher: Kempe suggested $110,000 annually, while others have posited $200,000 per year. Kempe suggested that the budget provided to Noriega for his intelligence activities totaled $200,000 every year. These payments included $76,039 as "gifts and incentives" from the CIA. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair would later suggest that the United States had known of Noriega's drug trafficking since the 1960s, and had been shielding him from investigation from the 1960s to the 1990s. CIA director William Webster would nonetheless describe Noriega as an ally in the U.S. government's war on drugs. Officials in the Reagan administration stated that they had overlooked Noriega's drug-related activities because he was an ally of the U.S. in the conflicts in Central America. The U.S. was also concerned that any successor to Noriega would not tolerate the presence of the U.S. military within Panama.
A 1988 U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations concluded: "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)." Noriega was allowed to establish "the hemisphere's first 'narcokleptocracy'". One of the large financial institutions that he was able to use to launder money was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. In the 1988 U.S. presidential election, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis highlighted this history in a campaign commercial attacking his opponent, Vice President (and former CIA Director) George H. W. Bush, for his close relationship with "Panamanian drug lord Noriega". Kempe argued in 1990 that the U.S. provided much of the training that allowed him to seize control of Panama, and called Noriega's relationship with the U.S. a "sordid marriage of convenience".
Hugo Spadafora was a physician and a political activist who had first clashed with Noriega when they were both members of Torrijo's government. Though an ally of Torrijos, he and Noriega had been personal enemies for a long time. Despite not being a member of the opposition, he was a vocal critic of Noriega beginning in 1981 when Spadafora returned to Panama from Guatemala. Spadafora amassed evidence of corruption within the government by using his position as an ally of Torrijos to question Noriega's allies, including Rodriquez and Carlton. This included a lengthy conversation with Carlton in mid-1985 after his drug operations had collapsed due to conflicts over a missing shipment, and he had received negative publicity in the Panamanian press. In September 1985 he accused Noriega of having connections to drug trafficking and announced his intent to return to Panama to oppose him. The drug trafficking charges threatened Noriega's support among his own constituency of middle class individuals who had benefited under his and Torrijos' government. Spadafora was seized from a bus by a death squad at the Costa Rican border. Later, his decapitated body was found, showing signs of brutal 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 commander in Chiriquí, Luis Córdoba. A conversation captured on wiretap between Noriega (in Paris) and Córdoba included an exchange in which Córdoba says "We have the rabid dog", to which Noriega responds "And what does one do with a dog that has rabies?" U.S. intelligence officials believed that they had evidence of Noriega's involvement in the killing. The murder of Spadafora badly damaged Noriega's image both within and outside Panama, and was among the reasons for the U.S. beginning to view Noriega as a liability rather than an asset, despite his ongoing support for U.S. interventions elsewhere.
Barletta visited New York City soon after the murder was discovered; when a reporter asked him about the Spadafora matter, he promised a full 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 P. Shultz, 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. While Noriega was out of the country, Díaz Herrera considered using the uproar around Spadafora to seize power, but despite mobilizing some troops, eventually decided against following through with the coup, realizing he could not count on sufficient support. Furthermore, Noriega had made a deal with his deputy Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera, to the effect that he would step down as military leader in 1987 and allow Díaz Herrera to succeed him. In 1987, however, Noriega went back on this agreement, announced he would be heading the military for the next five years, and assigned Herrera to a diplomatic post. Díaz Herrera retaliated by making public statements accusing Noriega of rigging the 1984 election, murdering Spadafora, and of trafficking in drugs, as well as of assassinating Torrijo with a bomb on his plane. These statements provoked huge protests against Noriega, with 100,000 people, approximately 25% of the population of Panama City, marching in protest on June 26, 1987. Noriega charged Herrera with treason, and cracked down hard on the protesters. The U.S. Senate passed a resolution asking Noriega to step down until Herrera could be tried; in response Noriega sent government workers to protest outside the U.S. embassy, a protest which quickly turned into a riot. As a result, the U.S. suspended all military assistance to Panama, and the CIA stopped paying Noriega a salary. The Senate resolution had the effect of identifying the U.S. with the effort to remove Noriega; Noriega exploited the rising anti-American sentiment to strengthen his own position. Without the support of the U.S., Panama defaulted on its international debt, and that year the economy of the country shrunk by 20%. However, though the U.S. considered not recognizing the new president, the state department decided not to do so, as that would amount to breaking relations with Noriega.
The relationship between the U.S. and Noriega deteriorated further during the late 1980s, particularly after the U.S. began to suspect that Noriega was lending his support to other intelligence services, as well as to drug-trafficking groups. Hersh wrote in 1986 that U.S. intelligence officials suspected Noriega of selling intelligence to the Cuban government of Fidel Castro; his report received widespread attention. Bob Woodward published a story on Noriega in The Washington Post soon after, going into even greater detail about Noriega's intelligence connections. Woodward and Hersh's reputations made certain that the stories were taken seriously. Spadafora had also informed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency of some of his findings about Noriega' involvement in smuggling. Multiple agencies investigated Noriega in the U.S., continuing despite opposition from the Reagan administration. In 1988 Noriega was indicted in a U.S. court on charges of drug-trafficking. The indictment accused him of "turning Panama into a shipping platform for South American cocaine destined for the United States, and allowing drug proceeds to be hidden in Panamanian banks." Soon afterward an army Colonel and a few soldiers made an attempt to overthrow Noriega; their poorly planned effort was crushed within a day.
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' Panameñista Party, along with vice-presidential candidates Ricardo Arias Calderón and Guillermo Ford. According to Guillermo Sanchez, 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 in 1984, beating Duque by a 3-to-1 margin.
Rather than publish the results, Noriega voided the election, claiming "foreign interference" had tainted the results, and declared Duque, his chosen candidate, to be the winner. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, present in Panama as an observer, denounced Noriega, saying the election had been "stolen", as did Bishop Marcos G. McGrath. However, Duque knew he had been badly defeated and refused to go along. 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 guayabera 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 recognized Endara as the new president. Noriega's decision to void the election results led to another coup attempt against him in December 1989. A number of Noriega's junior officers rose up against him, but the rebellion was easily crushed by the members of the Defense Forces loyal to Noriega. After this attempt, he declared himself the "maximum leader" of the country. The rebels were captured and taken to a military base outside Panama City, where they were tortured and then executed.
In March 1988 the U.S. government entered into negotiations with Noriega seeking his resignation. After lengthy and inconclusive talks, the negotiations collapsed a few months later; according to Dinges, Noriega had no intentions of ever resigning. On December 15, 1989, the PRD-dominated legislature spoke of "a state of war" between the United States and Panama. It also declared Noriega "chief executive officer" of the government, formalizing a state of affairs that had existed for six years. Noriega subsequently claimed that this statement referred to U.S. actions against Panama, and did not represent a declaration of hostilities by Panama. 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 Bush as a reason for the invasion. In a December 16 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 Defense said 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. Robert Paz of the United States Marine Corps was shot and killed in the incident. An American couple that witnessed the incident were also arrested and harassed by the PDF.
The U.S. invasion of Panama was launched on December 20, 1989. Although the killing of the Marine was the ostensible reason for the invasion, the operation had been planned for months before his death. The move was the largest military action by the U.S. since the Vietnam War, and included more than 27,000 soldiers, as well as 300 aircraft. The Bush administration considered lighter assaults using fewer troops, but decided against them. The U.S. forces targeted Noriega's personal private vehicles. Several slums in the middle of Panama city were destroyed in the U.S. bombing campaign. The day after the invasion, Noriega's deputy Colonel Luis del Cid retreated with some soldiers to the mountains outside David City, after laying mines in the airport. Though this was part of a contingency plan for the invasion, del Cid quickly decided that the Panamanian military was not in a position to fight a guerrilla war against the U.S., and negotiated a surrender. The number of U.S. soldiers that were killed in the operation was between 23 and 60; 300 soldiers were injured. Casualties among the Panamanian forces were much higher; between 300 and 845. A large number of civilians were killed in the invasion: the precise figure is a matter of debate. The U.S. government reported 250 civilian deaths; other observers estimated 3000 casualties. On December 29, the United Nations General Assembly voted 75–20 with 40 abstentions to condemn the invasion as a flagrant violation of international law. The invasion was followed by widespread looting, as the Panamanian police stood by; Kempe reported that the looters would cause half a billion U.S. dollars in damages, which the U.S. government would later help repair. Overall, the invasion would cause U.S. $1.5 billion in property damage. 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. Activist Barbara Trent disputed this finding, saying in a 1992 Academy Award-winning documentary The Panama Deception that the Panamanian surveys were completed in wealthy, English-speaking neighborhoods in Panama City, among Panamanians most likely to support U.S. actions.
Noriega received several warnings about the invasion from individuals within his government; though he initially disbelieved them, they grew more frequent as the invasion drew near, eventually convincing Noriega to go on the run. Noriega used a number of subterfuges, including lookalikes and playbacks of his recorded voice, to confuse U.S. surveillance as to his whereabouts. During his flight Noriega has been reported to have taken shelter with several politicians that supported him, including with Balbita Periñan, the mayor of the town of San Miguelito. The last two days of his flight were spent partly with Noriega's ally Jorge Krupnick. Noriega was reported by Kempe to have considered seeking sanctuary in the embassy of Cuba or Nicaragua, but both buildings had been surrounded by U.S. troops. On the fifth day of the invasion, Noriega and four others took sanctuary in the Apostolic Nunciature, the Holy See's embassy in Panama. Having threatened to flee to the countryside and lead guerrilla warfare if not given refuge, he instead turned over the majority of his weapons, and requested sanctuary from Monsignor Laboa. He spent his time in a "stark" room with no air conditioning or television, reading the Bible for the duration of his stay.
Prevented by treaty from invading the embassy of the Holy See, U.S. soldiers erected a perimeter around the Nunciature. Psychological warfare was used in an attempt to dislodge him, including blaring rock music, and turning a nearby field into a helicopter landing zone. After ten days of Operation Nifty Package, Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990. He was detained as a prisoner of war, and later taken to the United States.
In April 1992 a trial was held in Miami, Florida, at the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida in which Noriega was tried and convicted on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. At his trial, Noriega intended to defend himself by presenting his alleged crimes within the framework of his work for the CIA. The government objected to any disclosure of the purposes for which the United States had paid Noriega because this information was classified and its disclosure went against the interests of the United States. In pre-trial proceedings, the government offered to stipulate that Noriega had received approximately $220,000 from the U.S. Army and the CIA. Noriega insisted that "the actual figure approached $10,000,000, and that he should be allowed to disclose the tasks he had performed for the United States". The district court held that the "information about the content of the discrete operations in which Noriega had engaged in exchange for the alleged payments was irrelevant to his defense". It ruled that the introduction of evidence about Noriega's role in the CIA would "confuse the jury". One of the witnesses in the trial was Floyd Carlton, who had previously flown shipments of drugs for Noriega.
Information about Noriega's connections to the CIA, including his relationship with Oliver North and his alleged meetings with Bush were kept out of the trial. After the trial, Noriega appealed this exclusionary ruling by the judge to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the government, despite disagreeing with the lower court. It said: "Our review leads us to conclude that information regarding the purposes for which the United States previously paid Noriega potentially had some probative value ... Thus, the district court may have overstated the case when it declared evidence of the purposes for which the United States allegedly paid Noriega wholly irrelevant to his defense". The Court of Appeals refused to set aside the verdict because it felt that "the potential probative value of this material, however, was relatively marginal". On September 16, 1992, Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison, later reduced to 30 years.
Before receiving his permanent prison assignment, Noriega was placed in the Federal Detention Center, Miami, facility. Noriega resided in the Federal Correctional Institution, Miami, in an unincorporated area of Dade County, Florida, and had the Federal Bureau of Prisons ID number 38699-079. The facility in which Noriega was incarcerated was relatively comfortable; it was nicknamed the "presidential suite" within the prison.
Under Article 85 of the Third Geneva Convention, Noriega was considered a prisoner of war, despite his conviction for acts committed prior to his capture by the "detaining power" (the United States). This status meant that in Florida he had his own prison cell, furnished with electronics and exercise equipment. His cell had been nicknamed "the presidential suite".
It was reported that Noriega had been visited by evangelical Christians, who claimed that he had become a born again Christian. On May 15 and 16, 1990, while Noriega still awaited trial, Clift Brannon, a former attorney turned preacher, and a Spanish interpreter, Rudy Hernandez, were allowed to visit Noriega for a total of six hours at the Metropolitan Correctional Center of Dade County, Florida. Following the visit, Noriega wrote Brannon a letter thanking him, and stating that his visit had been like "a dream, a revelation", and that "receiving our Lord Jesus Christ as Savior guided by you" had been an emotional moment for him. Noriega's prison sentence was reduced from 30 years to 17 years for good behavior. After serving 17 years in detention and imprisonment, his sentence ended on September 9, 2007.
The French government requested Noriega's extradition after he was convicted of money laundering in 1999. The French claimed that Noriega had laundered $3 million in drug proceeds by purchasing luxury apartments in Paris. Noriega was convicted in absentia, but French law requires a new trial after the subject of an in absentia sentence is apprehended. He faced up to 10 years in French prison if convicted. France had previously made Noriega a Commandeur of the Légion d'honneur in 1987.
In August 2007, a U.S. federal judge approved a request from the French government to extradite Noriega from the United States to France after his release. Noriega has also received a long jail term in absentia in Panama for murder and human rights abuses. Noriega appealed his extradition to France because he claimed that country would 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 sentenced to 20 years in prison.
On February 20, 2010, Noriega's lawyers filed a petition with the Supreme Court of the United States to block his extradition to France, after the court refused to hear his appeal the previous month. Noriega's attorneys had hoped the dissenting opinion in that ruling, written by Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, would convince the full court to take up his case, but on March 22, 2010, the Supreme Court refused to hear the petition. Two days after the refusal, the District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami lifted the stay that was blocking Noriega's extradition. Later that month Noriega's attorney stated that he would travel to France and try to arrange a deal with the French government.
Noriega was extradited to France on April 26, 2010. Noriega's lawyers claimed the La Santé Prison, at which he was held, was unfit for a man of his age and rank; the French government refused to grant him prisoner of war status, which he had in the United States. On July 7, 2010, Noriega was convicted by the 11th chamber of the Tribunal Correctionnel de Paris and sentenced to seven years in jail. The prosecutor in the case had sought a ten-year prison term. In addition, the court ordered the seizure of €2.3 million (approximately U.S. $3.6 million) that had long been frozen in Noriega's French bank accounts.
Panama asked France to extradite Noriega so he could face trial for human rights violations in Panama. The French government had previously stated that extradition would not happen before the case in France had run its course. On September 23, 2011, a French court ordered a conditional release for Noriega to be extradited to Panama on October 1, 2011. Noriega was extradited to Panama on December 11, 2011, and incarcerated at El Renacer prison to serve time for crimes committed during his rule.
On February 5, 2012, Noriega was moved from the El Renacer prison to the Hospital Santo Tomas because of high blood pressure and a brain hemorrhage. He remained in the hospital for four days before being returned to prison. It was announced on March 21, 2012, that Noriega was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which was later revealed to have been benign.
On January 23, 2017, he was released from prison and placed under house arrest to prepare for surgery that would remove the tumor. On March 7, 2017, he suffered a brain hemorrhage during surgery to remove a benign tumor which left him in critical condition in the intensive care unit of Santo Tomas hospital in Panama City.
Noriega died on May 29, 2017, at the age of 83. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela announced Noriega's death on Twitter shortly before midnight, writing, "The death of Manuel A. Noriega closes a chapter in our history; his daughters and his relatives deserve to bury him in peace." His wife and three daughters were all alive at the time of his death.
Noriega's rule in Panama has been frequently described as a dictatorship, while Noriega is often referred to as a "strongman". A 2017 obituary stated that Noriega "was an opportunist who used his close relationship with the United States to boost his own power in Panama and to cover the illegal activities for which he was eventually convicted." A 2010 article in The Guardian referred to him as the best known dictator of his time, and as "Panama's answer to Colonel Gaddafi". Dinges writes that though Noriega's regime saw a number of murders and crimes, they were similar in scale to those that occurred under the authoritarian governments in Guatemala, Chile, and Argentina, and El Salvador at the same time; these governments never saw the level of condemnation from the U.S. as Noriega did.
An article in The Atlantic after Noriega's death compared Noriega to Castro and Augusto Pinochet, stating that while Castro had been the nemesis of the US, and Pinochet had been its ally, Noriega had managed to be both. It called Noriega the archetype of US intervention in Latin America: "The lawless, vicious leader whom the U.S. cultivated and propped up despite clear and serious flaws." The author stated that although Panama was a freer democracy for Noriega's removal, it was still plagued by corruption and drug trafficking, while Daniel Ortega, who the U.S. tried to fight with Noriega's help, remained firmly in power in Nicaragua, and argued that this demonstrated the failure of the U.S.'s approach to Latin American interventions. Similarly, Cockburn and St-Clair stated that despite Noriega's overthrow, Panama's importance in the illegal drug trade continued to grow.
Noriega himself took great care to shape perceptions about him. He permitted and encouraged rumors that as the chief of intelligence, he held dirty secrets on everybody in the country. Dinges suggests that the impression among some officials that Noriega made money off of every transaction in the country may have been cultivated by Noriega himself. Among opposition leaders in Panama he was seen variously as a sexual pervert, as a sadist, and a rapist. Within U.S. government circles contradictory images abounded; Noriega was seen as a CIA spy, a drug trafficker, a nationalist supporting Torrijos, an ally of Cuba, and an ally of Oliver North and the Contras. He was perceived as a trusted collaborator in the war against drugs, even as the DEA was investigating him for involvement in smuggling. By the time of his removal he had come to be hated in the U.S., and the invasion was portrayed as an attempt to remove an evil man. Dinges writes that these contradictory images played a large role in the self-contradictory policy of the U.S. government towards Noriega.
Noriega used the moniker "El Man" to refer to himself, but was also known by the nickname "Pineapple Face", a name which Noriega detested, and which would be the subject of a later lawsuit. He had a lavish lifestyle during his time as the de facto ruler of Panama, described in an obituary as a "libertine life off drug-trade riches, complete with luxurious mansions, cocaine-fueled parties and voluminous collections of antique guns." His bravado during public speeches was remarked upon by commentators; for instance, after his indictment by the U.S., he made a public speech while brandishing a machete, and declaiming "Not one step back!" The attitude of machismo that Noriega adopted has been described as a reaction to the persecution his brother Luis faced as an openly homosexual man in Panama and Peru. This image contrasted sharply with the impact of a mug shot taken of him after his capture, and which became a symbol of his fall from power. He was reported to have been a deeply superstitious man, who placed trust in a number of talismans he carried with him.
British actor Bob Hoskins portrayed Manuel Noriega in the biographical 2000 TV movie Noriega: God's Favorite. The film was described as a "political drama with profound stakes", that was nonetheless depicted with "wild humor". A reviewer wrote that "the hair-raising career of deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega surpassed even the surreal creations of many Latin American novelists, thus making him a natural movie subject". Hoskins was nominated for a Satellite Award for his role in the film.
Noriega was depicted in Call of Duty: Black Ops II. In July 2014, he filed a lawsuit against game company Activision for depicting him and using his name without his permission. Noriega, who filed the suit while in prison for murder, claims he is portrayed as “a kidnapper, murderer and enemy of the state”. In gameplay Noriega's character is referred to as "Old Pineapple Face", by fictional character Frank Woods. The name "Old Pineapple Face" was an actual nickname for Noriega used by Panamanians. On October 28, 2014, the case against Activision was dismissed.