Manuel Noriega Returns to Panama

In his glory

December 11

After spending more than two decades imprisoned in the United States and then France, former Panamanian dictator Manuel (Pineapple Face) Noriega was flown back to the Republic of Panamá on the evening of Sunday, December 11. More than one hundred journalists, as well as many others, awaited his arrival. A decoy was used for security purposes. He arrived at the jail where he is now being held shortly after the decoy arrived.


Seventy-seven and in poor health, he is now imprisoned at the El Renacer facility in Gamboa, a maximum-security prison located in a jungle area on the shores of the Panama Canal. Upon Noriega’s arrival President Ricardo Martinelli said that “he will go to jail as any convicted person” and that he will have no special privileges. That seems a bit obfuscatory, and it is expected that defense counsel will ask the court(s) where he had previously been convicted in absentia to grant home detention, as provided in Article 107 of the Panamanian penal code. Such requests may or may not be granted. According to the Panamanian foreign minister, Noriega will at least for the immediate future have a small and simple cell, where he will be isolated from other prisoners.

Sooner or later, he will be tried for various murders and other crimes against humanity in cases dating back to when he was head of the military area of ​​Chiriquí province. That was during his reign in the Time of the Tyrants — an excellent but appropriately gruesome account of the period. According to two Panamanian friends, both then in positions to know and whom I questioned closely several years ago, the account of the Noriega years provided there is generally accurate. Noriega’s future trials can result in six judgments totaling more than sixty-seven years in prison or, under Article 107 of the penal code, house arrest.

Here is a twisted, as one might expect, 2010 Al Jazeera English language interpretation of Noriega’s activities in Panamá on his apprehension by the United States in 1990:


While in power, Noriega lived a life of luxury. Here is a video showing what remains of one of the thirteen estates he previously infested inhabited. Close to a bathroom shown in the video there was a safe in which several million dollars in cash were found:


Noriega got his start in Chiriquí Province. My wife and I live in the mountains in a rural part of Chiriquí, where three of the thirteen estates (one then with its own zoo) formerly owned by Noriega are located. He “owned” other estates as well under the names of his various henchmen; at least one of those estates has been sold and is now owned by a foreigner. Many of Noriega’s murders were committed here, and even after more than two decades most of the locals still tend to be quite reticent about him even when pressed. During his reign, most learned to keep their mouths shut; such lessons are not soon forgotten. We have heard stories of people who spoke out about him back then being tortured, murdered, or “disappearing” — generally amounting to the same thing — as well as about his practice of a strange variant of Voodoo. Some shrunken heads are said to have been found in one of the local estates he previously owned or which were owned on his behalf. Some stories are probably true, others may have been embellished over time.


Balbina and Noriega

President Martinelli

Noriega is almost but not quite universally despised throughout Panamá. During the 2009 presidential election, Balbina Herrera lost overwhelmingly to Ricardo Martinelli, then a successful businessman. Herrera had been a close friend of Noriega, and that was one of the many reasons she lost. There were many additional reasons, including her affiliation with Venezuela’s el Presidente Chávez.

Noriega’s immediate predecessor in power and mentor, Omar Torrijos — whom some think was assassinated on orders from Noriega, although the story is widely discounted — remains widely revered; many buildings throughout the country are named after him. As far as I know, there are none named after Noriega. The president who immediately preceded Martinelli, Martin Torrijos, is an illegitimate but recognized son of Omar Torrijos; campaign posters showed Martin beneath a somewhat misty photo of his deceased father, the latter wearing his trademark hat, smoking his cigar, and looking down as from Heaven upon his son.

Here’s a video showing Noriega leaving Paris:


Here is an article about his arrival in Panamá from a local English language website:

Noriega Has Landed in Panama — Welcome Home Pineapple Face

The flight carrying the former military dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega has landed at the Tocumen International Airport in Panama. On a personal note I’d like to be the first to say “welcome home, pineapple face.” Now his aircraft will taxi to the cargo area of the airport. All of the other passengers on the aircraft will get off of the airplane and they will be taken on buses back to the main terminal. In cases of high profile prisoner transfers, they are the first to get on and the last to get off. Noriega is under the custody of (my friend) Manuel Moreno, the Chief of the Department of Judicial Investigation. Panama’s Attorney General Jose Ayu Prado is also aboard the plane, as well as a Panamanian doctor. Now Noriega will be put aboard a helicopter and flown from Tocumen to the Police Academy near the Summit Golf Course. And then from there he will be taken in a convoy to the El Renacer prison in Gamboa. All of Panama is fixated on this coverage, and CNN in Spanish is also covering the event wall to wall.

Editor’s Comment: On the day Noriega was captured by U.S. forces in Panama as a result of Operation Just Cause, I was standing on the runway of Howard Air Force Base. I witnessed the helicopter land that was carrying him when he surrendered to U.S. forces, and watched as he was marched aboard a U.S. C-130 to be flown to Miami. Once those cuffs went on they have never come off. It’s nice to see this whole thing come “full circle.” I think it will be healthy for Panama as a whole to go through this process of receiving Noriega, and holding him responsible for his actions in a Panamanian court. Until this moment the United States “owned” Noriega’s arrest and his departure from Panama. As of right now the Republic of Panama “owns” his future. Let’s see what they decide to do with it.


According to another article from the same source, when Noriega arrived at the El Renacer prison his face was hidden from the view of angry people outside screaming at him. However, as noted above, it was a decoy used for security reasons — causing many of those awaiting his delivery disappointment and displeasure at the deception, which became apparent when Noriega arrived a short time later. He was then taken to the prison emergency room where he was examined and fingerprinted.

Welcome back, Manuel. May you get what you so richly deserve. Most of Panamá looks forward to it.


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