Panama has been in the news recently for its Papers, but long before then we had Noriega (or “Old Pineapple Face”, as his braver countrymen called him – behind his back, of course). Indeed, when I started out as a baby AML trainer, Manuel frequently featured as one of my cautionary tales (novelist Catherine Aird probably said it best: “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.”). And today we hear that Noriega has died in hospital in Panama City, from complications following an operation on a brain tumour.
Manuel was one of those worrying PEPs who start out as friends and then abuse their position to such an extent that photos of them shaking hands with the political great and good later become an embarrassment. His story also illustrates the deals that are sometimes done with the devil: from the 1950s, Noriega proved such a useful source of intelligence to the CIA that they were willing to overlook his thriving cocaine trafficking business. But then he outgrew their control. In 1983 he seized power during a military coup and assumed absolute power as a dictator, until the Americans unseated him in 1989 when they launched what they called (very American, this) “Operation Just Cause” and sent in 28,000 troops. Anticipating Julian Assange, Noriega hid in the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Panama City – but the Americans flushed him out by playing deafening pop and heavy metal music non-stop outside, and whisked him off to the US in April 1992 to face charges of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering (mainly through the late and not-much-lamented BCCI). On 16 September 1992 he was sentenced to forty years in prison (reduced on appeal to thirty).
The French joined the queue, asking for him to be sent there to serve sentences for convictions in absentia for murder (1995) and money laundering (1999 – using US$3 million of drug proceeds to buy luxury apartments in Paris). Noriega arrived in Paris in April 2010, faced the retrial that is mandated in France for any conviction in absentia, and was jailed for seven years. He was granted a conditional release in September 2011 and returned to Panama three months later to serve twenty years in El Ranacer prison (held by many to be one of the worst prisons in the world – although Noriega’s quarters had aircon, TV and computer access, and daily visits from a doctor). Very roughly, he spent the first 51 years of his life free, and the last 28 in prison.
In the summer of 2015 Noriega made a televised appeal to Panamanians, asking for forgiveness and appealing for early release: “I apologise to anyone who was offended, harmed, injured or humiliated by my actions or those of my superiors in compliance with orders or those of my subordinates in the same status.” But viewers were not tempted: the consensus was that Noriega showed no emotion or contrition, and relatives of those who were tortured and murdered during his regime expressed outrage, calling for him to die in prison. In the end, he was put under house arrest in January 2017 to prepare for brain surgery – from which he never recovered. Many will feel that he was unfairly lucky to make old bones.