Noriega went from US ally to US foe due to autocratic rule, ties to Colombian drug gangs

By By Juan Zamorano, AP
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Noriega: US ally became foe because of drug ties

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA — Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega went from being Washington’s man in Latin America to the target of a 1989 U.S. invasion, as his rule became increasingly autocratic and he forged deep ties with Colombian drug traffickers.

Noriega was born in Panama City’s El Chorrillo district in the mid- to late-1930s, and raised by foster parents. As a youth, he claimed to be four years older than he was to win a scholarship to a military academy in Peru and his exact age remains in dispute.

In 1962, he joined Panama’s combined military and police force, and rose through the ranks to become its chief under the mentorship of Gen. Omar Torrijos, who replaced the force’s elite leadership with a new generation of officers drawn from the lower classes.

Torrijos took power in a coup in 1968, and made Noriega his chief of intelligence. Noriega built files on prominent Panamanians, and developed close ties with U.S. intelligence agencies. Torrijos also gave Noriega jurisdiction over customs and immigration, which helped fund the military.

After Torrijos died in an unexplained aircraft crash in 1981, Noriega seized power, despite the fact that the short, pockmarked man had little of Torrijos’ charisma.

Noriega developed an image as a man of the people and spent weekends in rural Panama speaking publicly about his humble origins. His official annual salary was $60,000, but in addition to drugs he allegedly had a stake in liquor stores, maritime services, banks, casinos, newspapers, a television station and 12 radio stations.

He tolerated little opposition, closing private news media for months at a time for alleged offenses ranging from personal insults to incitement to disobedience.

Noriega long served as a U.S. agent, acting as a back channel to the Cuban government, confiscating drug shipments, tracing money laundering in Panamanian banks and reporting on terrorist and guerrilla activities. An Air Force colonel testified during his trial that Noriega was “the best source of information the United States had in Latin America.”

But Washington began to distance itself from Noriega after the headless body of a foe, Hugo Spadafora, was found in a U.S. mailbag in Costa Rica in 1985, and Noriega’s ties to the notorious Medellin drug cartel in Colombia became clearer.

The final break came three years later with grand jury drug indictments in Florida, and the United States began exerting pressure, including sanctions, to force him to resign.

When elections appeared to be going against him in May 1989, Noriega abruptly had them annulled and installed a hand-picked provisional president before his rubber-stamp assembly named him chief of government.

President George H.W. Bush sent U.S. troops to invade Panama on Dec. 20 and Noriega went into hiding, slipping into the Vatican Embassy on Christmas Eve. He surrendered days later after U.S. troops blasted music at his hideout, and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison by a federal court in Miami for drug racketeering and money laundering.

Noriega was classified as a prisoner of war, allowed to wear military uniform to court appearances and lived in his own suite in a prison near Miami, with television and exercise equipment. His sentence was later shortened to 30 years, and he was set for release on good behavior in 2007.

But the U.S. held him pending an extradition request from France, which wanted to try him on charges of laundering millions in cocaine profits through three major French banks and using drug cash to invest in three posh Paris apartments.

He arrived in Paris on Tuesday, and could go on trial within two months.

He is also wanted in Panama, where a court has sentenced him in absentia to 60 years in prison for murder, embezzlement and corruption.

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