PANAMA CITY, Panama — Manuel Noriega is back in his Panamanian homeland after nearly 22 years, sitting in a prison cell in a country he ruled as a personal fiefdom until U.S. troops invaded and hauled him off to a Florida jail.
A few protesters gathered outside El Renacer prison as the 77-year-old former general was spirited inside Sunday night after an extradition flight from France, yet the overwhelming mood among his countrymen seemed to be indifference.
While some people banged pots and honked car horns in Panama City's downtown in a symbolic gesture of disdain for Noriega, most Panamanians on the capital's crowded streets were out holiday shopping.
Officials escorted Noriega home on an Iberia airlines' jet that touched down at Tocumen airport Sunday afternoon in a flight that began in Paris and made a stop in Madrid.
Noriega, who served 17 years in U.S. prison for drug trafficking and nearly two years in France for a money-laundering conviction, now has begun serving three 20-year sentences in Panama for the killings of political opponents in the 1980s.
Officials whisked him into prison without letting anyone see him, a move that irritated some of the protesters outside.
"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.
"Why not let him be seen? What are they hiding? We want to see him handcuffed in a cell," Barria told the TVN news channel.
Later, officials took journalists into the prison to watch from a distance as Noriega, accompanied by guards while sitting in a wheelchair, checked possessions he brought with him from France.
About a dozen protesters, identifying themselves as relatives of army officers shot by Noriega's forces, stood 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."
President Ricardo Martinelli said Noriega "should pay for the damage and horror committed against the people of Panama."
Noriega returned to a country much different from the one he left after surrendering to U.S. troops 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 said his return meant little.
"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."
"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.
Things were different in the 1970s and 1980s, when Noriega, whose pockmarked face earned him the nickname "Pineapple Face," became a valuable ally to the CIA. At that time, Noriega helped the U.S. combat leftist movements in Latin America by providing information and logistical help, and also acted as a back channel for U.S. communications with unfriendly governments such as Cuba's.
But as the Cold War waned, Noriega became a more powerful and unforgiving dictator at home. Tensions developed between the strongman and U.S. officials, who had been aware for some time that he was working with the Colombia-based Medellin drug cartel.
More than 26,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines invaded on Dec. 20, 1989, and fighting with Noriega loyalists devastated sections of Panama City and killed 23 U.S. troops, 314 Panamanian soldiers and 200 civilians. After finally surrendering, Noriega was flown to Miami for trial on drug-related charges.
While serving his drug trafficking conviction, he received special treatment as a prisoner of war and lived in his own bungalow with a TV and exercise equipment.Comment on this story
Unlike those minimum-security digs outside Miami, Noriega's cell at El Renacer will be spartan.
He "will be located in an individual cell, without luxuries and in similar conditions to the rest of the inmates," Interior Ministry spokeswoman Vielka Pritsiolas said.
Pictures posted on the ministry's website showed a cell with little more than a bed, a table, and a shelf. The cell has its own tiny bathroom, relatively wide window slits and door screens that look out onto a sunny, tropical space with plants.
Noriega's lawyers in Panama have said they plan to request house arrest under a law that allows people older than 70 to serve their sentences at home. Noriega's legal team says he has blood pressure problems and is paralyzed on the left side as a result of a stroke several years ago.