Noriega, 'old and tired,' heads back to Panama cell

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 8, 2011 

MEXICO CITY — Twenty-two years after American GIs invaded Panama and spirited away dictator Manuel Noriega, the former strongman will return on Sunday to a jail cell in his homeland.

Jitters over his arrival rippled through Panama, where Noriega, now 77 and ailing, still has allies who fear the secrets that he may reveal.

Noriega spent 20 years in a Miami prison on drug charges after the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, and then was sent to France on charges he had laundered $3 million for the Medellin cocaine cartel. France has cleared Noriega's return for Sunday.

Noriega faces at least two 20-year jail terms in Panama for the disappearance of political opponents during his 1983-1989 rule. But his future remains uncertain. Panama allows convicts who are 70 years and older to serve their sentences under house arrest.

Guarded by Panamanian custodians, Noriega will arrive on a commercial flight at 5:30 p.m. local time Sunday, and then be transferred to El Renacer prison by helicopter, Justice Minister Roxana Mendez said. Mendez added that he would not be given a special cell.

His presence may rattle the victims of his often-thuggish rule, his political foes and his onetime collaborators in the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD.

Largely barred from making public statements during more than two decades of incarceration, the stocky onetime military intelligence chief apparently desires to speak out upon his return.

"He said as much in his hearing (in France), that he is coming to Panama to proclaim his innocence," his lawyer, Julio Berrio, told reporters in Panama.

"The people who are probably the most nervous are in fact in the PRD, his political party," said Orlando J. Perez, a political scientist at Central Michigan University, who spoke while traveling in Panama. "In the last 21 years, they've made a very concerted effort to distance themselves from the Noriega regime and militarism."

Some politicians, including President Ricardo Martinelli, may benefit from anything Noriega might say about his onetime collaborators. In late November, in remarks to a Panamanian television station, Martinelli said: "We are going to learn about many fortunes that were made illegally in this country."

Opponents of Noriega planned to march Friday in Panama City to repudiate the onetime dictator and oppose any house arrest. They planned to gather on 50th Street, where anti-riot troops from the feared Dignity Battalions beat and arrested them before Noriega's ouster.

Noriega's rule came to an end on Dec. 20, 1989, when President George H.W. Bush ordered Operation Just Cause, an invasion of more than 25,000 soldiers, to restore democracy, secure the Panama Canal and combat narcotics trafficking.

It marked the biggest deployment of U.S. troops overseas since the Vietnam War. Within hours, U.S. troops overran Noriega's 3,000-member Panamanian Defense Forces. The general took refuge in the Vatican mission, scene of a standoff in which American soldiers blasted rock music — which Noriega reportedly loathed — at the building as a form of psychological warfare.

Noriega finally surrendered on Jan. 3, 1990. He subsequently was brought to trial and convicted on drug trafficking charges in South Florida.

An adroit authoritarian, even while given to such acts as waving a machete, Noriega knew how to work many angles. He was on the CIA's payroll from 1967, historians say, even as he allied with Colombian drug traffickers to launder their profits in French banks.

Noriega was convicted in absentia by Panamanian courts for masterminding the murders of two opponents of his regime — Hugo Spadafora, a physician whose decapitated body was found stuffed in a postal sack, and Moises Giroldi, a renegade army major who led a failed coup attempt against him.

Courts also convicted him of a massacre at the Albrook airbase, where troops loyal to him brutally murdered 11 mutinous officers in a hangar on Oct. 3, 1989.

Spadafora's family has fought against Noriega's return.

"We can't turn the page on the Noriega era because there are still many open wounds," Alida Spadafora, the victim's sister, told the TVN newscast in Panama.

While Noriega was in prison in South Florida, doctors treated him for prostate cancer and a stroke. He reportedly has difficulty walking. His French lawyer, Yves Leberquier, described him as an "old and tired man."

Other court cases against Noriega still are pending in Panama, and the pock-marked former dictator may find himself returning often to court, becoming a magnet for the local news media.

"He could be in the news on and off for many years to come," Perez said.

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