Panama: The return of Manuel Antonio Noriega
Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega will face his country’s justice for the first time in 21 years. (Getty Images)
The upcoming arrival of former dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega to Panama, forces a country with more urgent issues – the rise of drug trafficking, which has led to an urgent agreement with Ecuador to fight the cocaine routes; the rising crime rates, including some recent massacres; and the much-criticized suppression of the indigenous ngöbe bugle population – to take a look in the mirror. Until recently, Noriega, the man who ruled from 1983 until the U.S. invasion of 1989, had become a memory, a dark figure from a past era.
Now the darkness is returning in the flesh.
Noriega used to be the CIA’s most trusted man in Central America until excessive profits received from the same drug dealing and guerrilla operations he was supposed to be fighting against led to his demise. After being captured during President George Bush, Sr.’s tenure, Noriega had spent 21 years in jails between the U.S. and France. However, after France approved his extradition a week ago, Noriega will be repatriated on October 1st, and will face Panama’s justice for the first time.
“He’s never answered for his crimes before,” José Otero, a criminal justice reporter for La Prensa, Panama’s leading national newspaper, told Univision News. “He’s been sentenced to two 20-years terms in prison, plus another 15-year term. He should be in jail for 55 years, but Panama’s laws do not allow cumulative sentencing, and the maximum period anyone can be sent to jail for is 20 years.”
Furthermore, General Manuel Noriega, now 89 years old, is long past the maximum age of criminal imprisonment allowed by Panama, 75.
Otero joins those who consider Noriega a faded glory with no political capital to become a key player in Panama again. “He’s old, he’s sick, he has nothing relevant to say right now,” said Otero, noting that had Noriega “had any cards under his sleeve, he could have showed them during his trials.” This is Otero’s response to the rumors about supposedly hidden information Noriega would release to hurt his enemies once he’s in the country again. Some sources suggested that Noriega should not stay in Panama, since “some members of those families he hurt in the past may now want to claim revenge.”
What Noriega’s immediate plans are, his camp won’t say. Univision News spoke with his lawyer, Rolando Rodríguez Chong, who declined to give specifics on the grounds that he needed to protect his “client’s family, and to avoid any interference with the procedures.” Rodríguez Chong is a polarizing figure himself; he once prosecuted Noriega in absentia, on behalf of the Panamanian government, for the horrendous torture and decapitation of guerrilla leader Hugo Spadafora.
“I am a man of law,” said Rodríguez, “I’m here to defend whoever needs me.”
Rolando Rodríguez Bernal (no relation to Rodríguez Chong), the editor-in-chief of La Prensa, agrees that Noriega is now ill and aging, but is prepared to see some “media frenzy.” He told Univision News that even to honor Noriega’s claimed desire to simply “stay with his family and enjoy the company of his grandchildren” would be unfair for those who died under the general’s orders.
The former military base of Tinajitas, at the eastern side of Panama City, is being prepared to receive Noriega. The Panamian government declined to comment when Univision News asked for an official statement.
In neighboring countries, there is no real expectation for Noriega’s return. Élmer L. Menjívar, a journalist from El Faro, a popular digital newspaper from El Salvador, told Univision News “we might not have given this story the right dimension, or maybe it doesn’t have any real relevance to our country.” Panama, according to Menjívar, lacks preeminence in the region and, “even though it belongs to SICA (Central American Integration System),” it doesn’t ingrate itself politically or economically. “(Panama) has stronger ties with Colombia and the Caribbean,” Menjívar said.
In a country where plaintiffs become defendants, and vice versa, unexpected voices sometimes rise up, calling for reconciliation.
Guillermo Sánchez Borbón, 87, is a former columnist who was beaten by “Séptima Fuerza”, a paramilitary unit under Noriega’s National Guard. He exposed proof of Noriega’s involvement with the Spadafora crime, but now says that the general should be “left alone in peace. He’s spent 20 years in prison already.”
“After all these years he’s spent in jail, he might be full of bitterness,” Sánchez said. “I don’t think he has any chance to become powerful in Panama again. I don’t think he has political power anymore, but he surely has some followers.”
“How many, I surely cannot tell.”