Noriega Moreno, Manuel Antonio (1934–)

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Noriega Moreno, Manuel Antonio (1934–)

Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno was commander in chief of the Panamanian National Guard (1983–1989) and a highly controversial figure of the late twentieth century. Born on February 11, 1934, in a poor Panama City neighborhood, he attended public school, graduating in 1955 near the top of his class. He then attended the Peruvian Military Academy, graduating in 1962, the same year he became a National Guard Officer. He completed his education in 1967 at the U.S. School of the Americas in Panama, where he received counterintelligence training. An associate of fellow officer Omar Torrijos Herrera, Noriega was instrumental in suppressing a December 1969 coup attempt, thereby enabling Torrijos to return from Mexico to put down the revolt. As a reward, Torrijos promoted Noriega several ranks to lieutenant colonel and placed him in command of the guard's Intelligence Division G2.

Torrijos's death in an airplane crash on July 31, 1981 provided Noriega his opportunity. A participant in the 1983 coup that removed Colonel Rubén Darío Paredes, Noriega signed an agreement with several colonels, each of whom would resign at specified times, thus rotating the guard command among them. Professing loyalty to the revolution of General Torrijos, he continued projects benefiting urban labor and rural peasants and promoted their integration into the political system.

After becoming guard commander on August 12, 1983, Noriega established complete control of the nation. Concentrating power in his own hands and using tactics of intimidation perfected during his days as intelligence chief, he ruthlessly eliminated rivals, installed presidents at will, and rigged the 1983 election. He used the National Assembly to impeach a president who dared suggest his removal in 1988, appointed and dismissed several provisional presidents, and finally annulled the elections of 1989.

It is evident that during his career Noriega served as an intelligence operative for a number of causes, though specifics are hard to obtain. He was a paid informant of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for many years, apparently beginning as early as his days as a cadet in Peru. After involvement in the transit of arms from Cuba to the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua, at one point Noriega aided U.S. arms shipments to their enemies, the Contras, although he later reversed himself and prevented further arms shipments through Panama. He provided intelligence to both Israel and Cuba in return for training his personal bodyguards. He was accused of working with the Medellín drug cartel, allegedly facilitating international drug smuggling and money transfer and laundering through Panama. A U.S. grand jury in Miami indicted him on narcotics charges, and he was convicted in 1992.

The combination of Noriega's annulment of the 1989 elections (an act condemned by the Organization of American States [OAS]), the drug indictment, and his support of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua led to a break with Washington. In support of deposed president Eric Arturo Delvalle, the United States initiated a financial and economic boycott, while Noriega engaged in intimidating U.S. military personnel in Panama. After the failure of several attempted coups in Panama, the United States intervened militarily on December 20, 1989. Noriega took refuge in the Papal Nunciate, later surrendering to U.S. troops on January 3, 1990, to be taken to Miami for trial on the narcotics indictment. He was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to 40 years in prison. The United States then installed a new government, headed by Guillermo Endara.

Noriega was to have been released from prison on September 9, 2007, after serving fifteen years of a thirty-year sentence for drug trafficking. However, his release was delayed because of an extradition request from France on charges of money laundering. As of 2007 he was also still wanted in Panama, where he is charged in connection with the 1985 murder of Hugo Spadafora, a political activist who had criticized him for his protection of drug trafficking.

See alsoCentral Intelligence Agency (CIA); Contras; Drugs and Drug Trade; Nicaragua; Panama; Torrijos Herrera, Omar; United States-Latin American Relations.


Reliable sources on Noriega are Steve C. Ropp, "Panama's Struggle for Democracy," in Current History (December 1987); "Panama's Defiant Noriega" in Current History (December 1988); and "Military Retrenchment and Decay in Panama," in Current History (1990). See also Frederick Lempe, Divorcing the Dictator (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Dinges, John. Our Man in Panama: How General Noriega Used the United States and Made Millions in Drugs and Arms. New York: Random House, 1990.

Koster, R. M., and Guillermo Sánchez. In the Time of the Tyrants: Panama, 1968–1990. New York: Norton, 1990.

Noriega, Manuel, and Eisner, Peter. America's Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega. New York: Random House, 1997.

                                        Kenneth J. Grieb