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.
This caused Endara, Calderon, and Ford to take a triumphant motorcade through Panama Viejo to claim the victory. Squads of Noriega cronies, the so-called “Dignity Battalions,” attacked the group with clubs and bats. The world was shocked to see Ford, the vice president-elect running from thugs with clubs as his guayabera was covered in his own blood. Noriega voided the election and named Francisco Rodriguez as the new president.
In October of 1989, several junior officers tried to rebel against Noriega, but the U.S. stood by and refused to act, even though the coup leaders had captured Noriega and offered to turn him over to American authorities. This window of opportunity allowed Noriega to call for help and the coup soon fell apart. All of the officers involved were tortured and executed at a hangar in Albrook Air Base.
Noriega began harassing U.S. military members and their family members when they were traveling off-base. When a Marine lieutenant was killed at a checkpoint by the PDF, the U.S. finally decided to act.
There were 12,000 U.S. troops already stationed in the country. The Pentagon decided to invade on December 20 with 13,000 more troops in what was called “Operation Just Cause.” The PDF, outgunned, and with poor leadership was quickly crushed. On Christmas Eve 1989, Noriega, with the net tightening around him as he moved from hiding place to hiding place, sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy, the Papal Nuncio.
American troops soon surrounded the grounds, turned searchlights on the embassy building, and blasted loud rock music to keep the residents and Noriega from getting any rest. Among the songs blasted at Manuel Noriega by American Psyop personnel were “Time Is on My Side” by the Rolling Stones, “Nowhere to Run” by Martha and the Vandellas, Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” White Snake’s “Judgment Day,” Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” and of course Van Halen’s “Panama.”
Finally, with no options available to him, Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990. Panamanians rejoiced as “Pineapple Face,” as Noriega was known due to his pockmarked skin, was gone.
Manuel Noriega was tried in Miami and convicted on eight of the 10 charges of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. In July 1992, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. He was released after 17 years. He was then extradited to France where in 2010 was sentenced to seven years for money laundering. The French released him to the Panamanian authorities in 2011 to face murder charges.
He was imprisoned in Panama where he died on May 29, 2017, at the age of 83.