“Our Man in Panama” is Dead
Manuel Noriega, former dictator of Panama, died May 29 at age 83.
Americans under the age of 40 have little memory of Noriega because he spent the last 27 years of his life in prison. But his legacy can’t be ignored. It set the stage for two wars in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, and US military involvement in at least six other Middle Eastern countries.
Born poor in Panama City in 1934, Noriega worked his way up through the ranks of the military and even graduated from the infamous School of the Americas, a US military training facility that specializes in training Latin Americans for leadership roles in their respective countries.
Noriega eventually became chief of military intelligence for the government of General Omar Torrijos, another graduate of the School of the Americas, who took power in a 1968 coup. By that time, Noriega was already considered a valuable asset to the CIA. In 1971, the agency placed Noriega on its payroll.
After Torrijos died in a mysterious plane crash in 1981, Noriega became the most powerful man in Panama. By the time he became the de facto dictator of Panama in 1983, the CIA was paying him at least $165,000 annually. His most important task was to act as a conduit for the Reagan administration’s unlawful arming of the Contras, militants in Nicaragua opposed to the socialist government. He let the CIA establish surveillance posts in Panama and served as an intermediary between then vice-President George H.W. Bush and Fidel Castro. So close was the relationship between Noriega and top US officials he was dubbed “our man in Panama.”
But in 1986, Noriega’s usefulness came to a halt. The New York Times published an article linking him to drug trafficking, murder, and accusing him of acting as a double agent for Cuba. Politicians in both parties were outraged. Senator Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts accused federal agencies of having a “sweetheart deal” with Noriega. Conservative Republican firebrand Jesse Helms warned that US officials had "supported Noriega for too long."
In 1989, newly elected President George H.W. Bush thought deposing Noriega would be a convenient way to rid himself of what his critics called the “wimp factor.” Bush first tried to depose Noriega in an October 1989 coup, but it was crushed.
By now, Bush had his eyes on a much bigger target: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. But the Pentagon needed somewhere to test its latest weapons before it took on Saddam’s powerful forces. Bush decided to invade Panama on the pretense of capturing Noriega to bring him to trial in the US, and free Panama from a brutal dictator. And the Pentagon could unleash its newest generation of weapons against a virtually defenseless population.
On December 19, 1989, more than 26,000 US troops invaded Panama to capture and depose Noriega. According to the official statistics, about 250 Panamanians died in the assault, along with a handful of US soldiers. The real total, though, was much higher. At least 2,500 Panamanians died, with 7,000 people arrested without charge and another 18,000 detained.
Noriega fled to the Vatican embassy in Panama but surrendered to US forces a few days later. He was then extradited to Florida to face trial on multiple counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. There was little doubt that his trial would end with a guilty verdict, despite an almost total lack of credible evidence against him. Noriega was eventually sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.
Prosecutors successfully suppressed nearly all evidence of Noriega’s previous cooperation with the CIA and other federal agencies. Louis Kellner, the US Attorney in Miami who indicted Noriega, later admitted, “Noriega was never a major player in the drug war.”
Officials at the DEA actually praised Noriega for his cooperation in America’s War on Drugs. The US ambassador to Panama at the time of the invasion, Arthur H. Davis, Jr., told an interviewer “all the time I was there, Noriega …cooperated 100% with our [anti-drug] people.” In fact, Noriega’s cooperation with the DEA facilitated Operation Pisces, a three-year investigation in the 1980s which Attorney General Edwin Meese called “the largest and most successful undercover investigation in federal drug law enforcement history.”
But that was just another reason Noriega had to go. Operation Pisces had led to indictments of Medellin Cartel kingpins Pablo Escobar and Fabio Ochoa. Cartel leaders decided they needed to find a way to get rid of Noriega. They paid a drug trafficker $1.25 million to testify against Noriega at his trial in Miami.
The most important legacy of Manuel Noriega, however, was the transformation US foreign policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, there was actually discussion of scaling back military spending since the Soviet Union was no longer a strategic threat.
A powerful faction in the Republican Party, later dubbed the “neocons,” believed that the military simply needed to shift its emphasis, rather than cut back. And an invasion of Panama fit the bill. Dick Cheney, at the time a Wyoming senator, and General Colin Powell, Bush’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued successfully for military intervention.
Only a few months after the invasion of Panama, US troops were sent to Saudi Arabia. The stated goal was to assist in defending Saudi Arabia and to intimidate Iraq. This was days after Iraqi troops had occupied Kuwait. The US sent more military into the region in the months that followed, and in February 1991, more than 150,000 mainly US troops invaded Kuwait and Iraq.
Many Muslims were outraged by the presence of hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim troops in Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in the Islamic religion. Osama bin Laden and other Islamic militants geared up to fight what they viewed as a holy war, or Jihad, against the West.
After bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization launched the attacks of 9/11, Congress passed a series of anti-terrorism laws. These laws sharply curtail civil liberties, but were justified and continuously strengthened to fight the threat of terrorism.
That is how the War on Communism and the Soviet Union eventually transformed into the War on Terror. And in a very significant way, it all started with Manuel Noriega. RIP.
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