Esteban Felix, Associated Press
PANAMA CITY, Panama — More than two decades after the U.S. forced him from power, Manuel Noriega returned to Panama on Sunday as a prisoner and, to many of those he once ruled with impunity, an irrelevant man.
Some Panamanians feel hatred for the former strongman and rejected American ally; a few others nostalgia. But as he returned to his native country for the first time since his ouster, it seemed like few people had any strong feelings at all.
There were no legions of admirers at Panama City's Tocumen airport when the Spanish Iberia airlines' flight touched down, delivering him from Paris' La Sante prison after a stopover in Madrid. The crowds in the capital Sunday were of holiday shoppers.
Noriega, who has served drug sentences in the United States and a money-laundering term in France, was whisked by helicopter to the El Renacer prison to serve out three 20-year sentences for the slayings of political opponents in the 1980s. An elevated platform was set up at the prison so journalists could watch him enter, giving Panamanians what likely was their only glimpse of the man who once ran the country like his private fiefdom.
Authorities sowed confusion at the prison by first wheeling in a person thought to be Noriega in a wheelchair, covering him with what appeared to be a coat so his face could not be seen. But then a convoy arrived about a half hour later, triggering speculation the first person was a decoy.
Roxana Mendez, the interior minister, later told the TVN news channel was Noriega was in the second convoy.
"We reiterate that we had to safeguard the physical safety of Noreiga," she said.
The lack of a view of Noriega afforded by the tight security frustrated some Panamanians.
"We are disappointed at the excessive security that kept us from seeing the prisoner," said Aurelio Barria, a member of the old opposition to Noriega, who was once known for his snappy military uniforms and nationalistic swagger.
"Why not let him be seen? What are they hiding? We want to see him handcuffed in a cell," Barria told TVN.
About a dozen protesters, identifying themselves as relatives of army officers shot by Noriega's forces, gathered at the prison's main entrance. One held a sign saying "Justice, Noriega, Killer." Another woman shouted "Die, you wretch! Now you're going to pay for your crimes." It was unlikely the ex-dictator could hear her.
President Ricardo Martinelli said Noriega "should pay for the damage and horror committed against the people of Panama."
Downtown, some people could be heard banging pots and honking car horns, a symbolic gesture of repudiation that activists had suggested to show their rejection of Noriega.
The 77-year-old former general returned to a country much different from the one he left after surrendering to U.S. forces Jan. 3, 1990. The government, once a revolving cast of military strongmen, is now governed by its fourth democratically elected president.
El Chorrillo, Noriega's 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 Panama 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. Noriega's former headquarters have been torn down and converted into a park with basketball courts.
While some Panamanians are eager to see 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.
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