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Panama's Noriega returning home to serve time

By Juan Zamorano

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Dec. 11 2011 11:40 a.m. MST

A police car believed to be carrying former Panamanian military strongman Manuel Noriega is driven after leaving La Sante Prison in Paris Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011. Noriega left France Sunday for further punishment in his homeland after more than 20 years in U.S. and French jails for drug trafficking and money laundering.

Thibault Camus, Associated Press

PANAMA CITY, Panama — Former military strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega was flown home to Panama on Sunday to be punished once again for crimes he committed during a career that saw him transformed from a close Cold War ally of Washington to the vilified target of a U.S. invasion.

Noriega left Orly airport, south of Paris, on a flight operated by Spain's Iberia airlines. He was delivered directly to the aircraft by a four-car convoy and motorcycles that escorted him from the French capital's La Sante prison.

The French Justice Ministry, in a one-line statement, said France turned Noriega over to Panamanian officials on Sunday in accordance with extradition proceedings. It was the only official remark.

Noriega's return comes after more than 20 years in U.S. and French prisons for drug trafficking and money laundering. Panama convicted him during his captivity overseas for the slayings of two political opponents in the 1980s.

He was sentenced to 20 years in each case, and Panamanian officials say he will be sent straight to a jail cell when he lands. The ex-general, whose pockmarked face earned him the nickname "Pineapple Face," could eventually leave prison under a law allowing prisoners over 70 to serve out their time under house arrest.

A doctor was reported to be among the team of Panamanian officials escorting the 77-year-old ex-dictator back to Panama.

"He was very impatient, very happy. He's going home," one of his French lawyers, Antonin Levy, said by telephone Saturday night, a day after his last visit with Noriega.

Noriega is returning to a greatly changed nation.

El Chorrillo, his boyhood neighborhood and a downtown slum that was heavily bombed during the 1989 invasion, now stands in the shadow of luxury high-rise condominiums that have sprung up along the canal since the United States handed over control of the waterway in 2000.

The rotting wooden tenements of the community have been replaced by cement housing blocks, and Noriega's former headquarters have been torn down and converted into a park with basketball courts.

While some Panamanians insist on punishment for the man who stole elections and dispatched squads of thugs to beat opponents bloody in the streets, others believe his return means little.

"In politics, he won't have any great impact, because the people of Panama have other concerns," said Marco Gandasegui, a sociology professor at Panama's Center for Latin American Studies.

Panama is plagued by rising street crime, and has become a center for money laundering. The country also is struggling with an ambitious plan to expand the canal, and to balance foreign investment in tourism and mining against concerns they could harm the environment.

"I don't think Noriega has anything hugely important to say," said retired Gen. Ruben Dario Paredes, who headed Panama's army before Noriega took over in the early 1980s. "The things he knows about have lost relevance, because the world has changed and the country has, as well."

Others think it's time to forgive and forget.

"This man has paid for his crimes, and it looks like he can hardly walk anymore," said retiree Hildaura Velasco, 67. "If he dies in prison, or at home, what does it matter?"

And then there are those who harbor a certain nostalgia for the Noriega era, prior to the U.S. intervention and before a spike in street gangs and drug violence.

"He did bad things, but he also did good things," said Sabina Delgado, 60, a mother of six who has lived her whole life in El Chorrillo, which has been hit by a wave of violent gang crime. "Imagine, when he was here, the country didn't have as much crime. There weren't as much drugs, there was more control."

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