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, and in a third case involving the death of troops who aided one of the opponents in a rebellion.
He was sentenced to 20 years for each of the three cases, 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The rotting wooden tenements of the community have been replaced by cement housing blocks, and Noriega's former headquarters have been torn down and converted into a park with basketball courts.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."
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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