Panama's Noriega returning home to serve time

By Juan Zamorano

Associated Press

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

Hatuey Castro, 82, a member of the anti-Noriega opposition who was detained and beaten by Noriega henchmen, begs to disagree.

"Noriega was responsible for the invasion and those who died in the operation," he said. "He dishonored his uniform, there was barely a shot and he went off to hide. He must pay."

Though other U.S. conflicts have long since pushed him from the spotlight, the 1989 invasion that ousted Noriega was one of the most bitterly debated events of the Cold War's waning years.

As he rose in the Panamanian military during the 1970s and 1980s, Noriega cooperated closely with the CIA, helping the U.S. combat leftist movements in Latin America by providing information and logistical help. He also acted as a back channel for U.S. communications with unfriendly governments such as Cuba's.

But Noriega was playing a double game. He also began working with Colombia's Medellin drug cartel, and made millions moving cocaine to the United States.

As the Cold War waned, and the U.S. war on drugs gained prominence, Noriega's drug ties became a source of increasing tension. After a U.S. grand jury indicted him on drug charges in 1988, tensions escalated between his forces and U.S. troops stationed around the Panama Canal. A U.S. Marine was killed in one clash. President George H.W. Bush also accused Noriega's men of abusing a U.S. Navy serviceman and his wife.

On Dec. 20, 1989, more than 26,000 U.S. troops began moving into Panama City, clashing with Noriega loyalists in fighting that left sections of the city devastated.

Twenty-three U.S. troops, 314 Panamanian soldiers, and some 200 civilians died in the operation.

Noriega hid in bombed and burned-out neighborhoods before he sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy, which was besieged by U.S. troops playing loud rock music.

He gave up on Jan. 3, 1990, and was flown to Miami for trial on drug-related charges.

Noriega was convicted two years after the invasion, and served 17 years at a minimum-security prison outside Miami, where he received special treatment as a prisoner of war and lived in his own bungalow with a TV and exercise equipment.

When his sentence ended, he was extradited to France, which convicted him for laundering millions of dollars in drug profits through three major French banks, and investing drug cash in three luxury Paris apartments.

Noriega suffers from high blood pressure and partial paralysis as the result of a stroke several years ago, according to his lawyers in France.

The ex-dictator's return "should finally close a chapter of history that we do not ever want to happen again," said former Panamanian Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis, whose family was forced out of the country in retaliation for opposing Noriega.

"Hopefully, we can put this sad chapter of history in the past and focus on the future," Lewis said.

Noriega faces immediate punishment for the murders of military commander Moises Giroldi, slain after leading a failed rebellion on Oct. 3, 1989, and Hugo Spadafora, a political opponent found decapitated on the border with Costa Rica in 1985.

He also could be tried in the deaths of other opponents during the same period.

"He's coming to serve his sentences, and that's important for the families of the victims," said former Panamanian Attorney General Rogelio Cruz. "His presence here is important because he'll satisfy the demands of justice for his criminal convictions and the trials that he still has to face."

Associated Press writers Thibault Camus and Oleg Cetinic in Paris, Harold Heckle in Madrid and Michael Weissenstein in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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