Manuel Noriega Returns to Panama

December 12th, 2011

By Dan Miller

Manuel NOriega in his gloryManuel Noriega on Dec 11, 2011On Sunday, he was transferred to a maximum security facility in the jungle.

After spending more than two decades imprisoned in the United States and then France, former Panamanian dictator Manuel (Pineapple Face) Noriega was flown back to the Republic of Panamá on the evening of Sunday, December 11. More than one hundred journalists, as well as many others, awaited his arrival. A decoy was used for security purposes. He arrived at the jail where he is now being held shortly after the decoy arrived.

Seventy-seven and in poor health, he is now imprisoned at the El Renacer facility in Gamboa, a maximum-security prison located in a jungle area on the shores of the Panama Canal. Upon Noriega’s arrival President Ricardo Martinelli said that “he will go to jail as any convicted person” and that he will have no special privileges. That seems a bit obfuscatory, and it is expected that defense counsel will ask the court(s) where he had previously been convicted in absentia to grant home detention, as provided in Article 107 of the Panamanian penal code. Such requests may or may not be granted. According to the Panamanian foreign minister, Noriega will at least for the immediate future have a small and simple cell, where he will be isolated from other prisoners.

Sooner or later, he will be tried for various murders and other crimes against humanity in cases dating back to when he was head of the military area of ​​Chiriquí province. That was during his reign In the Time of the Tyrants — an excellent but appropriately gruesome account of the period. According to two Panamanian friends, both then in positions to know and whom I questioned closely several years ago, the account of the Noriega years provided there is generally accurate. Noriega’s future trials can result in six judgments totaling more than sixty-seven years in prison or, under Article 107 of the penal code, house arrest.

Here is a twisted, as one might expect, 2010 Al Jazeera English language interpretation of Noriega’s activities in Panamá on his apprehension by the United States in 1990:

While in power, Noriega lived a life of luxury. Here is a video showing what remains of one of the thirteen estates he previously infested inhabited. Close to a bathroom shown in the video there was a safe in which several million dollars in cash were found:

Noriega got his start in Chiriquí Province. My wife and I live in the mountains in a rural part of Chiriquí, where three of the thirteen estates (one then with its own zoo) formerly owned by Noriega are located. He “owned” other estates as well under the names of his various henchmen; at least one of those estates has been sold and is now owned by a foreigner. Many of Noriega’s murders were committed here, and even after more than two decades most of the locals still tend to be quite reticent about him even when pressed. During his reign, most learned to keep their mouths shut; such lessons are not soon forgotten. We have heard stories of people who spoke out about him back then being tortured, murdered, or “disappearing” — generally amounting to the same thing — as well as about his practice of a strange variant of Voodoo. Some shrunken heads are said to have been found in one of the local estates he previously owned or which were owned on his behalf. Some stories are probably true, others may have been embellished over time.

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One Response to “Manuel Noriega Returns to Panama”

  1. Tom Carter |

    I was stationed in Panama for two years, in 1977-1978. This was during the time of the Panama Canal Treaties negotiations, and there was a lot of tension and political unrest. Noriega, who was of some special interest to me and my colleagues, was then a lieutenant colonel and G2 of the Guardia Nacional, which made him chief of intelligence for the Guardia and, in effect, for the country. The dictator in place at the time, Brigadier General Omar Torrijos, was his boss and benefactor, literally owing his position to Noriega since he saved him from an earlier coup attempt.

    Noriega was a thug in all senses, from the way he wielded his official power to his many illegal activities. Torrijos, who was one of the more reasonable dictators around, was a pretty decent guy. It was always something of a mystery as to why he kept Noriega around, past history notwithstanding.

    I was once invited to a small reception where I would have met and presumably conversed cordially with Noriega. I turned down the invitation, feeling that it wouldn’t be appropriate for a lot of reasons. I never regretted missing that opportunity.

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