MIAMI — One-time Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, who turned his country into a narco-trafficking hub at the height of the U.S. war on drugs, may never go home again.
On Monday afternoon, the former nemesis of President George H.W. Bush spent his last moments in a southwest Miami-Dade federal prison for drug-trafficking offenses before being flown to France to face new money-laundering charges — capping one of the hemisphere's most politically explosive drug cases.
"It was the mother of all battles in the war on drugs," said former Miami federal prosecutor Myles Malman, who tried the early 1990s case. "There was so much riding on it -- the reputations of the prosecutors, the U.S. government and the president of the United States."
Noriega, whose transfer came after he had spent 20 years in federal prison, was placed on an Air France flight following U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's signature on his extradition order.
Noriega was ousted as Panama's leader and brought to Miami to stand trial following the 1989 U.S. invasion that drove him from power. He was convicted of cocaine-trafficking and related charges in 1992 and declared a prisoner of war by U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler — who even supported Noriega for parole in 2004.
But the administration of President George W. Bush kept Noriega behind bars even after the drug sentence ended on Sept. 9, 2007.
Noriega and his lawyers argued he should be returned to Panama, where he was wanted on murder charges, because he was a prisoner of war. His legal team said the U.S. was violating the Geneva Conventions by not sending him back to Panama. But several federal courts rejected the claim, with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing last month to hear his final appeal.
The court's majority turned away Noriega's appeal without comment. Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia said they would have heard the appeal, however, to help decide what the law is for prisoners of war being held by the United States. Noriega was the only person being detained with that status.
In a last ditch effort, Noriega's lawyers, Frank Rubino and Jon May, formally asked the secretary of state to send Noriega back to Panama, arguing that the Panamanian extradition request should take precedence because it was filed first and carried more serious charges than France's.
Both lawyers expressed disappointment after learning from the media that the U.S. government sent Noriega to France instead.
May said the fix was always in to send Noriega to France because when Noriega came up for parole, federal authorities said at a hearing that the Bush family had expressed serious concerns about his potential threat to President George H.W. Bush if he were released.
"The only reason the French asked for Noriega's extradition is because the Bush family did not want Noriega to return to Panama," May said. "They wanted him to die in prison in France.
"I'm convinced that Noriega's extradition to France was a political accommodation by the French," he added.
A few weeks before Noriega's sentence ended in September 2007, the U.S. filed papers backing France's request that he be extradited to stand trial on drug money-laundering charges there. Noriega was convicted in absentia of laundering some $3 million in drug proceeds, but France has agreed to give him a new trial.
Noriega faces a 10-year sentence for funneling $3.15 million to a bank account. He was accused of using some of that money to buy three luxury apartments in Paris.
Decades ago, Noriega was a reliable ally of the United States whose background included a stint as a CIA operative.
But his merger of power and drug trafficking led to his downfall. President George H.W. Bush ordered the U.S. military to invade Panama in Operation Just Cause in late 1989.
Noriega took sanctuary in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City but surrendered to U.S. troops in December 1989. While he was there, the U.S. military blasted rock music, including songs by the band Guns 'n' Roses, at top volume. The music stopped after the Vatican complained of harassment.
The general was whisked to Miami, where he would later stand trial. It took until 1992 for the U.S. attorney's office -- prosecutor Malman along with colleagues Michael ‘‘Pat'' Sullivan and Guy Lewis -- to convict him because of the legal and political complexity of the case.
After his conviction and sentencing, Hoeveler declared him a prisoner of war who should be accorded special privileges, including an apartment-like cell -- complete with phone, color TV and exercise bike -- at the low-security southwest Miami-Dade federal prison.
Hoeveler played a major role in Noriega's fate. He even wrote a 2004 letter to the U.S. Parole Commission recommending his release.
Hoeveler cited Noriega's "advancing age'' and his "tempered'' view toward the ex-strongman. That contrasted sharply with the Bush administration's stand to keep him behind bars, which delayed his parole for three more years.
On Monday, Hoeveler said Noriega's extradition to France came as no surprise.
"As far as I'm concerned, he paid his price to society," Hoeveler said. "Now he's on his way to France, and that's all I can say. There's nothing that I or anyone else can do."
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy contributed to this report.