In 1989, the de facto Panamanian leader and dictator Manuel Noriega decided to take refuge in the diplomatic Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See while being chased down by US military officers. When Pope John Paul II refused to turn over the dictator, the army resorted to, depending on who you ask, violent and loud approach: they relentlessly blasted the Holy See… with rock-and-roll music day and night.

A De Facto Authoritarian Ruler of Panama

Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno was a de facto authoritarian ruler of Panama from 1983 to 1989 until he was caught. His rise to power began when in 1968, Commander of the Panamanian National Guard Omar Torrijos overthrew elected President Arnulfo Arias in a coup d’etat. Noriega was a supporter of Torrijos, and he was first appointed as captain after he proved his loyalty to him when at the end of 1969, a coup was launched against the leader and Noriega worked to make sure that Torrijos, who went to Mexico on vacation that time, would not lose his power. After 18 months, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed as chief of military intelligence.

Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos shake hands after signing the Panama Canal Treaty. (White House photo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1981, Torrijos negotiated the Torrijos-Carter Treaties that ensured control over the Panama Canal would pass to Panama after 18 years. The increasing militarization of the Panamanian government and its involvement in drug trafficking was overlooked by the Carter administration due to its interest in signing a new treaty that was being negotiated at that time, the Panama Canal treaty.

When Torrijos died in a plane crash on July 31, 1981, Florencio Flores Aguilar inherited the position but was soon removed in a quiet coup in March 1982. It was Ruben Paredes who took over while Noriega became a full colonel and chief of staff of the National Guard. In August 1983, Paredes handed over the position to Noriega, thinking that he would allow him to stand for president. Well, the joke’s on him because after assuming his new position, Noriega told Paredes that he was not going to do it. Thus, Noriega became the de facto dicatator of Panama.

Relationship With The US

In the beginning, Noriega’s relationship with the US grew as he gained the favor of the Reagan administration, who was looking for allies in the region of Central America after the emergence of Marxist revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador supported by the Soviet Union. Noriega supported the US by allowing the CIA to establish listening posts in Panama and helping the US allies Salvadoran government versus the leftist insurgent called Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. He even allowed US bases in the Panama Canal even with the existence of Panama Canal treaties that were supposed to restrict them in the area.

At the same time, Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking greatly increased with its peak in 1984. He would transport cocaine in the US, covered by the intensifying conflicts in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. When he was outed by journalist Seymour Hersh, he reduced his drug scale operation. He even ordered a raid on a cocaine factory in Panama to prove that he was against illegal drugs. The US bought the show, and he was even invited to Harvard as a speaker in 1985 for a conference about the role of the military in Central America’s wars.

His relationship with the US started getting sour when he ordered the murder of a physician and political activist, Hugo Spadafora, who was a Torrijo supporter too but was a personal enemy of Noriega because he figured out and exposed his connections to drug trafficking. The Reagan administration highly regarded Spadafora, and they were not exactly pleased to hear that he was beheaded. The relationship further deteriorated when the US began suspecting in the late 1980s that Noriega was lending support to other intelligence services, particularly the Cuban government under Fidel Castro. In 1988, he was indicted on charges of drug trafficking by the US federal grand juries.

Then, the presidential election of May 1989 happened, and Noriega tipped the election results in favor of his former business partner Carlos Duque instead of the opposition candidate who was Guillermo Endara. Then-president Jimmy Carter denounced Noriega, who responded when opposition leader Endara paraded in a triumphant motorcade the next day, his team was badly beaten by Noriega’s paramilitary called the Dignity Battalions. The US recognized Endara as the new president and negotiated for Noriega to step down. After several months of lengthy conversation later, it was apparent that Noriega had no intentions of resigning. The Panamanian government then passed a resolution that a state of war existed between Panama and the United States. And so, on December 20, 1989, the US, now under the presidency of George Bush, launched its invasion of Panama. The triggering point was when Panamanian Defence Forces opened fire on a vehicle with four US service members in it on their way to dinner at a hotel in Panama City.  A Marine officer was killed and a Naval officer was wounded. A Navy SEAL officer and his wife who had witnessed the attack were detained.  The Navy SEAL was beaten to a bloody pulp and his wife was sexually assaulted.  Twenty-seven thousand soldiers marched, and 300 aircraft flew overhead.