A close ally of the U.S. military and intelligence establishment from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, General Manuel Noriega was the dictator of Panama from 1983 to 1989.
Intimately involved with U.S. covert efforts to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and to combat leftist revolutionary movements elsewhere in Central America, Noriega ran afoul of U.S. policy-makers in the aftermath of the Iran-contra affair; was indicted on federal drug charges in February 1988; and was overthrown in late December 1989 in the U.S. invasion of Panama.
He surrendered to U.S. officials in early January 1990; was transported to the United States; tried for drug trafficking in April 1992; found guilty in September; and sentenced to 40 years in prison, where he has remained. Convicted in France for money laundering, and in Panama in absentia for murder, it is unlikely that he will ever be freed.
Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno was born on February 11, 1938, in Panama City, the illegitimate child of a poor single woman who died when he was a small boy. Raised by his godmother in Panama City, he entered the military and was trained at the Military School of Chorrillos in Peru, where in the late 1950s he was recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
His relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies deepened during his training at the School of the Americas in Fort Gulick, Panama, where he completed his coursework in 1967. Commissioned as an intelligence officer in the Panama National Guard the same year, he rose rapidly in rank. In 1969 he helped dictator General Omar Torrijos fend off a coup attempt, and soon after was appointed the country’s Chief of Military Intelligence.
A shrewd political operator who deftly played both sides of the fence, through the 1970s he received hundreds of thousands of dollars as a CIA informant, and passed U.S. secrets to Fidel Castro and other U.S. adversaries. Allegedly complicit in the July 1981 plane crash that resulted in Torrijos’s death, with U.S. backing he became the country’s de facto head of state in August 1983.
By this time he was working closely with the administration of U.S. president Ronald Reagan in its efforts to overthrow the Sandinistas. He also used Panama’s strict secrecy laws to launch drug money-laundering operations, actively collaborating with the drug cartels of Medellín, Colombia.
Washington turned a blind eye to his role in the drug trade, emphasizing instead his collaboration with U.S. hemispheric "war on drugs". Despite mounting evidence of Noriega’s involvement in the drug trade, in 1987 Attorney General Edwin Meese issued Panama the Drug Enforcement Agency’s "highest commendation" for the country’s anti-narcotics efforts. Meanwhile Noriega’s base of support, in Washington and at home, had eroded.
The Iran-contra scandal purged Washington of many of his top supporters, while opposition in Panama mounted, mainly in consequence of his brutality in dealing with his opponents. The ax fell in February 1988 with a 12-count indictment on racketeering and narcotics charges issued by U.S. federal prosecutors.
After nearly two years of escalating tensions, on December 20, 1989, U.S. forces launched "Operation Just Cause", invading Panama, killing an estimated 300 civilians, wounding 3,000, and seizing Noriega. Launched in the name of the "war on drugs", the invasion had a negligible impact on the hemispheric drug trade, which has grown rapidly since.