On this day in January 1990, the once defiant Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was being led away in handcuffs by DEA agents. He was placed on an American C-130, before being whisked off to Miami to face drug charges. 

It was a stunning end for Panama’s strongman and head of a drug-dealing empire, who had been seduced by power and fell prey to living with the excesses of a dictator. 

Noriega was born poor but was able to get a commission in the Panamanian National Guard. There, he became a protégé of Omar Torrijos, the future dictator. Noriega moved up the ranks and became head of the intelligence service where he kept detailed files on members of the military, government, and the judiciary. 

Very early on, Noriega was recruited by the CIA to provide frequent updates on communist activities in the region. But, as the CIA soon learned, Noriega was also selling information to the Cuban government. And as much as Torrijos worked to prove Panama wasn’t involved in drug dealing, Noriega was heavily involved in it. As early as 1971, the U.S. government had enough evidence to indict him but chose not to because of the political ramifications. 

After Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981, Noriega, now the head of the National Guard, became, in effect, the actual ruler of Panama renaming the National Guard to Panama Defense Forces (PDF). The deeper he got into the drug dealing business, the more strained his relationship with Washington grew. 

While he supported the U.S. effort in El Salvador, he was sending arms to the M-19 guerrillas in Colombia and was money-laundering for the Ochoa brothers (Medellin Cartel). But things came to a head during the May 1989 election. 

Noriega’s hand-picked candidate Carlos Duque was running against an opposition coalition. The opposition had nominated Guillermo Endara as its presidential candidate and two other prominent figures, Ricardo Arias Calderón and Guillermo “Billy” Ford, as vice-presidential candidates.

Exit polls were clear: Endara was winning by three votes to one. Yet, Noriega stopped the count and the next day announced that Duque won by a two to one margin. Election watchers, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, called it a sham. Noriega was planning on announcing Duque as the winner, but Duque refused to have any part of it, knowing that it was tainted.