PANAMA CITY, Panama — More than two decades after the U.S. forced him from power, Manuel Noriega returned to Panama on Sunday as a prisoner and, to many of those he once ruled with impunity, an irrelevant man.
Some Panamanians feel hatred for the former strongman and rejected American ally; a few others nostalgia. But as he returned to his native country for the first time since his ouster, it seemed like few people had any strong feelings at all.
There were no legions of admirers at Panama City’s Tocumen airport when the Spanish Iberia airlines’ flight touched down, delivering him from Paris’ La Sante prison after a stopover in Madrid. The crowds in the capital Sunday were of holiday shoppers.
Noriega, who has served drug sentences in the United States and a money-laundering term in France, was whisked by helicopter to the El Renacer prison to serve out three 20-year sentences for the slayings of political opponents in the 1980s. An elevated platform was set up at the prison so journalists could watch him enter, giving Panamanians what likely was their only glimpse of the man who once ran the country like his private fiefdom.
Authorities sowed confusion at the prison by first wheeling in a person thought to be Noriega in a wheelchair, covering him with what appeared to be a coat so his face could not be seen. But then a convoy arrived about a half hour later, triggering speculation the first person was a decoy.
Roxana Mendez, the interior minister, later told the TVN news channel was Noriega was in the second convoy.
“We reiterate that we had to safeguard the physical safety of Noreiga,” she said.
The lack of a view of Noriega afforded by the tight security frustrated some Panamanians.
“We are disappointed at the excessive security that kept us from seeing the prisoner,” said Aurelio Barria, a member of the old opposition to Noriega, who was once known for his snappy military uniforms and nationalistic swagger.
“Why not let him be seen? What are they hiding? We want to see him handcuffed in a cell,” Barria told TVN.
About a dozen protesters, identifying themselves as relatives of army officers shot by Noriega’s forces, gathered at the prison’s main entrance. One held a sign saying “Justice, Noriega, Killer.” Another woman shouted “Die, you wretch! Now you’re going to pay for your crimes.” It was unlikely the ex-dictator could hear her.
President Ricardo Martinelli said Noriega “should pay for the damage and horror committed against the people of Panama.”
Downtown, some people could be heard banging pots and honking car horns, a symbolic gesture of repudiation that activists had suggested to show their rejection of Noriega.
The 77-year-old former general returned to a country much different from the one he left after surrendering to U.S. forces Jan. 3, 1990. The government, once a revolving cast of military strongmen, is now governed by its fourth democratically elected president.
El Chorrillo, Noriega’s boyhood neighborhood and a downtown slum that was heavily bombed during the 1989 invasion, now stands in the shadow of luxury high-rise condominiums that have sprung up along the Panama Canal since the United States handed over control of the waterway in 2000.
The rotting wooden tenements of the community have been replaced by cement housing blocks. Noriega’s former headquarters have been torn down and converted into a park with basketball courts.
While some Panamanians are eager to see punishment for the man who stole elections and dispatched squads of thugs to beat opponents bloody in the streets, others believe his return means little.
“I don’t think Noriega has anything hugely important to say,” said retired Gen. Ruben Dario Paredes, who headed Panama’s army before Noriega took over in the early 1980s. “The things he knows about have lost relevance, because the world has changed and the country has, as well.”
“In politics, he won’t have any great impact, because the people of Panama have other concerns,” said Marco Gandasegui, a sociology professor at Panama’s Center for Latin American Studies.
Things were different in the 1970s and 1980s, when Noriega, whose pockmarked face earned him the nickname “Pineapple Face,” became a valuable ally to the CIA. At that time, Noriega helped the U.S. combat leftist movements in Latin America by providing information and logistical help, and also acted as a back channel for U.S. communications with unfriendly governments such as Cuba’s.
But as the Cold War waned, Noriega became a more powerful and unforgiving dictator at home. Tensions developed between the strongman and U.S. officials, who also had been aware for some time that he was also working with the Colombia-based Medellin drug cartel.
On Dec. 20, 1989, more than 26,000 U.S. troops began moving into Panama City, clashing with Noriega loyalists in fighting that left sections of the city devastated. Twenty-three U.S. troops, 314 Panamanian soldiers and 200 civilians died in the operation.
The dictator hid in bombed and burned-out neighborhoods before he sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy, which was besieged by U.S. troops playing loud rock music. When he gave up he was flown to Miami for trial on drug-related charges.
Noriega was convicted on the U.S. drug trafficking charges two years after the invasion, and served 17 years. He received special treatment as a prisoner of war and lived in his own bungalow with a TV and exercise equipment.
When his sentence ended, he was extradited to France, which convicted him for laundering millions of dollars in drug profits through three major French banks, and investing drug cash in three luxury Paris apartments.
In Panama, Noriega was sentenced in absentia for the murders of military commander Moises Giroldi, slain after leading a failed 1989 rebellion, and Hugo Spadafora, a political opponent found decapitated on the border with Costa Rica in 1985. He also was convicted in a third case involving the death of troops who aided one of his opponents in a rebellion, and could be tried in the deaths of other opponents.
Unlike his minimum-security digs outside Miami, Noriega’s cell at El Renacer will be spartan.
Noriega “will be located in an individual cell, without luxuries and in similar conditions to the rest of the inmates,” Interior Ministry spokeswoman Vielka Pritsiolas said.
Pictures posted on the ministry’s website showed a cell with little more than a bed, a table, and a shelf. The cell has its own tiny bathroom, relatively wide window slits and door screens that look out onto a sunny, tropical space with plants.
Noriega’s lawyers in Panama have said they plan to request house arrest under a law that allows those over 70 to serve their sentences at home. Noriega’s legal team says he has blood pressure problems and is paralyzed on the left side as a result of a stroke several years ago.
Hatuey Castro, 82, a Noriega opponent who was detained and beaten by his henchmen, says it is about time Noriega paid for what he did.
“Noriega was responsible for the invasion and those who died in the operation,” he said. “He dishonored his uniform, there was barely a shot and he went off to hide. He must pay.”
Others are more sympathetic toward the aging ex-general. When last seen during his extradition from the United States to France, he appeared to have difficulty walking and was assisted by others.
“This man has paid for his crimes, and it looks like he can hardly walk anymore,” said 67-year-old retiree Hildaura Velasco. “If he dies in prison, or at home, what does it matter?”
Although they are probably in a minority, there are also those who harbor a certain nostalgia for the Noriega era. Panama has seen a spike in street gangs and drug violence since his ouster.
The country also remains a base for international drug trafficking and money laundering, and suffers from income inequality. Its government is struggling with an ambitious plan to expand the Panama Canal more than a decade after it regained control of the waterway, and to balance foreign investment in tourism and mining against concerns they could harm the environment.
Where Martinelli, the current president, rose to prominence as a supermarket magnate, Noriega worked hard to develop the image of a man of the people. His private life was that of a rich man, but publicly he stressed his humble origins and spent weekends courting the residents of rural towns and villages.
Noriega “did bad things, but he also did good things,” said Sabina Delgado, 60, a mother of six who has lived her whole life in El Chorrillo, which has been hit by a wave of violent gang crime. “Imagine, when he was here, the country didn’t have as much crime. There weren’t as much drugs, there was more control.”