On February 5, 1988, two federal grand juries in Florida announce indictments of Panama military strongman General Manuel Antonio Noriega and 16 associates on drug smuggling and money laundering charges. Noriega, the de facto dictator of Panama since 1983, was charged with smuggling marijuana into the United States, laundering millions of U.S. dollars, and assisting Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel in trafficking cocaine to America. The Panamanian leader denied the charges and threatened expulsion of the 10,000 U.S. service personnel and their families stationed around the Panama Canal.
In 1968, Noriega, then a first lieutenant in the Panamanian National Guard, played an important part in a coup that ousted President Arnulfo Arias and brought General Omar Torrijos to power. Early the next year, Torrijos rewarded Noriega for his loyalty by promoting him to lieutenant colonel and appointing him chief of military intelligence.
In 1970, Noriega, who had first been approached by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) while a promising military student in the early 1960s, went on the payroll of the CIA. The United States used Noriega as a check against the left-leaning Torrijos and as an informer on Central American revolutionaries, the Colombian drug cartels, and communist Cuba, which Torrijos, though not a Marxist himself, admired and visited. Noriega, meanwhile, developed his G-2 intelligence agency into a feared secret police force and became involved in the drug trade.
The U.S. government was aware of his drug trafficking, and in 1977 he was removed from the CIA payroll. However, in 1981, the United States organized and financed the anti-Sandinista Contras in Nicaragua, and Noriega was brought back into the CIA fold. For a salary of close to $200,000 a year, Noriega provided intelligence about the Sandinistas and Cubans to the Americans and aided the Contras in their drug-trafficking efforts.
In July 1981, Omar Torrijos was killed in a plane crash, and Colonel Noriega became chief of staff to General Ruben Dario Paredes, head of the National Guard. For two years, military and civilian leader struggled to gain the upper hand. In 1983, Paredes resigned and control of the military and the country passed to Noriega.
Noriega unified the armed forces into the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), promoted himself to the rank of general, and consolidated his rule. Under his regime, political repression and corruption became widespread. In 1984, he held a presidential election, but when Arnulfo Arias won another apparent victory, Noriega tampered with the returns and gave the election to Nicolas Ardito Barletta, who became a puppet president. Still, Noriega enjoyed the continued support of the Reagan administration, which valued his aid in its efforts to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
In 1986, just months before the outbreak of the Iran-Contra affair, allegations arose concerning Noriega’s history as a drug trafficker, money launderer, and CIA employee. Most shocking, however, were reports that Noriega had acted as a double agent for Cuba’s intelligence agency and the Sandinistas. The U.S. government disowned Noriega, and his supporters staged protests against the American presence in Panama. Meanwhile, the dictator cracked down on growing political opposition in Panama.
In February 1988, Noriega was indicted by federal grand juries in Tampa and Miami, and Panamanian President Eric Arturo Delvalle attempted to dismiss Noriega. Delvalle was himself dismissed by the Noriega-led National Assembly. In March 1988, the United States froze all Panamanian assets in U.S. banks and imposed sanctions, and the same month an attempted coup by a handful of anti-Noriega PDF officers was crushed by loyal PDF soldiers. During the next year, tensions between Americans and Noriega supporters in Panama continued to grow, and the United States increased its economic sanctions.
In May 1989, Noriega annulled a presidential election that would have made Guillermo Endara president, and demonstrators protesting the fraud were attacked by the Noriega-subsidized Dignity Battalions. In response, U.S. President George Bush ordered additional U.S. troops to the Panama Canal Zone and urged U.S. civilians to return to the United States.
In October, another coup attempt by anti-Noriega PDF soldiers failed, and on December 15 the Noriega-led assembly declared the dictator the official chief executive while recognizing that a state of war existed with the United States. The next day, an off-duty U.S. Marine officer was shot to death at a PDF roadblock. U.S. forces in Panama were put on high alert, and on December 17 President Bush authorized Operation Just Cause–the U.S. invasion of Panama to overthrow Noriega.
On December 20, 9,000 U.S. troops joined the 12,000 U.S. military personnel already in Panama and were met with scattered resistance from the PDF. By December 24, the PDF was crushed, the United States held most of the country, and Noriega sought asylum with the Vatican nuncio in Panama City. Meanwhile, Endara had been made president by U.S. forces, and he ordered the PDF dissolved. On January 3, Noriega surrendered and was taken to Howard Air Force Base, where he was arrested by U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials for his grand jury indictments. On January 4, he arrived in Florida to await his trial.
The U.S. invasion of Panama cost the lives of 23 U.S. soldiers and three U.S. civilians. Some 150 PDF soldiers were killed along with an estimated 500 Panamanian civilians. The Organization of American States and the European Parliament both formally protested the invasion, which they condemned as a flagrant violation of international law.
Noriega’s criminal trial began in 1991, and he pleaded innocent. On April 9, 1992, he was found guilty on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering, marking the first time in history that a U.S. jury had convicted a foreign leader of criminal charges. He was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment and, after extradition to and imprisonment in Panama, died in a Panama City hospital on May 29, 2017.