Former Panamanian Dictator Manuel Noriega Dies at 83

He had been serving a 20-year prison sentence for corruption and murder

Manuel Noriega is escorted onto a U.S. Air Force aircraft by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1990. United States Air Force/Wikimedia Commons

Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator whose turbulent relationship with the United States led to his fall from power in 1989, has died at the age of 83.

Randal C. Archibold of the New York Times reports that the cause of Noriega’s death is not yet known. He had been in intensive care at a hospital in Panama City since March 7, after he developed complications from surgery to remove a benign brain tumor, according to his lawyer.

On Twitter, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela wrote that the “death of Manuel A. Noriega closes a chapter in our history.” The former dictator leaves behind a thorny legacy, marked by corruption, hostile foreign relations, and brutality.

Bijan Hosseini and Joel Williams of CNN report that Noriega’s rise to power began with his career as a lieutenant in the Panama National Guard. Noriega found a mentor in General Omar Torrijos, who emerged as the leader of a military junta after Panama’s President Arnulfo Arias was ousted in a 1968 coup, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. When Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981, Noriega stepped into his shoes, taking control of the Panamanian Army in 1983. The position allowed Noriega to rule with unchecked authority, though he continued to install “puppet civilian presidents” to maintain an appearance of legitimacy, writes Colin Dwyer of NPR.

During his days in the military, Noriega began to cultivate a complex relationship with the United States. In the 1970s, he provided information to U.S. intelligence services about a number of drug and gun cartels, including the illicit operations of Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian trafficker. At the behest of the U.S. government, Noriega traveled to Cuba to help secure the release of two American freighters.

But Noriega was a fickle ally, reports Archibold of the Times. While he was selling secrets to the United States about Cuba, he was simultaneously making a fortune by selling Panamanian passports to Cuban secret agents. The American government knew of his duplicity, but sought to maintain good relations with Panama because the country is situated on the Panama Canal, a key strategic and economic location. The U.S. operated the canal for more than 80 years before transferring the territory to Panama in 1999.

In 1986, reports began to circulate that Noriega had authorized the gruesome torture and murder of a political rival, and that he was selling American secrets to Eastern European government. The relationship between Panama and the U.S. unraveled, and Congress halted economic and military aid to Panama in 1987.

In 1988, there was a failed coup against the dictator, and another unsuccessful attempt took place in 1989.

After Panamanian troops shot and killed an unarmed American soldier in December of 1989, President George H. W. Bush sent 27,000 troops into the country, Archibold writes. Noriega fled, and surrendering days later at the Vatican Embassy in Panama City when his protection expired on January 3 at noon

Following his arrest, Noriega was bandied about between prisons in the United States, France, and Panama. In January of this year, he was granted house arrest from a 20-year sentence handed down by Panama in 2011 to prepare for his brain surgery. At the time, he was imprisoned on charges of corruption, embezzlement and murder.

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