Panama: Noriega

History, history! We fools, what do we know or care.
--William Carlos Williams

"By creating an army in Panama where none existed the U.S. wrecked the political ecology of a healthy community and disturbed the military ecology of a region where it had vital interests."
by R.M. Koster
Manuel Noriega has written his memoirs with the help of Peter Eisner. I witnessed the events their book refers to, often at closer range than I would have liked. I took an active part in some--e.g., replacing the 1903 canal treaty with more equitable instruments.

My wife Otilia ran a human rights center that worked with Physicians for Human Rights, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and similar groups documenting and at times relieving abuses. Her work furnished a unique perspective on General Noriega's approach to statecraft--for instance this innovation in handling dissent: in 1988 and 1989 a number of political detainees were raped by HIV carriers, and all were routinely threatened with it.


Noriega's cruelty frightened, angered, and disgusted me for several years. Eisner uses me ill in America's Prisoner. "Not influenced by emotion" is part of the definition of the word "objective" in The American Heritage Dictionary. This will not be an objective review. It will not be all negative, however. America's Prisoner is relentlessly self-serving and the greater part at best half true, yet some of its views on important questions are accurate. Its criticism of the United States is wrong in some places and excessive in others but by no means entirely inappropriate.

Having lived in Panama the last 40 years, I am obliged to say that many U.S. actions there and elsewhere in Latin America have been criminally stupid, stupidly criminal, or both. The book suggests Noriega's trial was unjust. It was. The prosecution was shameless in its bribery of witnesses. What co-defendants got for flipping made me sometimes wish that I had been indicted.

The proceedings were almost totally politicized. It was clear long before they opened that, regardless of evidence, Noriega could not possibly be acquitted--a very sad thing for the United States.
The political cloud over the trial was due to President Bush's statement that the United States' purpose in invading Panama in December, 1989, was to capture Noriega and bring him to justice. The book calls that statement a lie. It was. The book considers the invasion a crime. It wasn't. It was an evil made necessary by previous crimes and blunders on the part of U.S. governments and Panama's tyrants.


In America's Prisoner Noriega notes that he took part in student political activities but does not mention that he informed on them for U.S. military intelligence in the Canal Zone. He says he wanted to be a doctor but doesn't say he was enrolled for a time in the medical faculty of the National University or why he never made it through. He says a diplomat half-brother got him an appointment to Peru's military academy but leaves out that while there he was arrested by the Lima police for savagely beating a prostitute.



And so on. Noriega leaves a lot out. He portrays himself as a patriot opposed solely by the decadent rich who hated him for being less white than they and for helping the disadvantaged.

His quarrel with the United States was caused by his refusal, on principle, to aid the U.S. in its unjust wars in Central America. The bad things the world has heard about him are calumnies concocted in Washington. He was never a U.S. agent, never trafficked in drugs or weapons. He never amassed a personal fortune. He never harmed anyone. And so on.

This figment is so unreal that dealing with it makes my teeth grind. Here, though, is a place where Noriega touches truth. On page 175, after calling George Bush a liar for saying the U.S. purpose in invading Panama "to bring me to justice", Noriega says:

The invasion was intended to destroy the Panamanian Defense Forces [PDF] and to guarantee that the Panama Canal would be in the friendly, Anglo-loving hands of a Panamanian puppet government by the time it was to be turned over by the United States on December 31, 1999.
The first phrase, about destroying the PDF, is as fair a statement of the primary objective of Operation Just Cause as anyone could wish for.

Let us leave the long term aside for a moment. Why did the leadership of the United States consider destroying the PDF worth going to war over in December, 1989, and why did Bush lie about it? The answers require a look at what happened in Panama.

In 1957 when I went to Panama, the obscene fortunes and racking want one sees today didn't exist. The country spent a larger portion of its product on public education than any in the hemisphere, the U.S. included. Good public schools meant social mobility; one could make it from poverty into the middle class. An example was Manuel Noriega, soon to be a commissioned officer. And Panama was peaceful; the police carried no firearms.

Two U.S. blunders, however, were poisoning Panama's future. The first had to do with the treaty that governed U.S. presence on the isthmus.
Drafted without a Panamanian's being consulted, then forced on the country, it gave the U.S. sovereign rights in perpetuity over the heart of Panama's national territory. It offended every Panamanian, and as an outmoded relic of times past did the United States more harm than good, yet U.S. governments ignored Panama's repeated requests that it be renegotiated until, in 1964, blood was shed over it. After that the issue had no easy resolution.

The other blunder was one of commission: The United States was creating a Panamanian army. This was part of a general policy of strengthening Latin America's military on two rationales. In one they would be our mercenaries: for cash and political backing, they would halt the spread of Marxism by killing Marxists and those who seemed prone to listen to them. In the other, using U.S. money, they would go about promoting justice and democracy, thereby building Marx-proof societies. The two views varied in modishness according to which party held the White House but were equally futile. The first was stupidly criminal, the second criminally stupid.

Panama had no military--an important if not the main reason why life was better there than in other parts of Latin America. In 1951, however, a U.S. Mutual Security Act providing funds for the hemisphere's military induced Panama to reconstitute its police as an army on paper. Converting it into a real one, with an officer caste in its own eyes above the law, was the thoughtful gift of its good neighbor to the north, done on the formula Toys plus Training yield Esprit de Corps and Elitism.

The formula worked. In October, 1968, the Panama's army showed itself the equal of armed forces elsewhere in Latin America by overthrowing the elected president ten days after he took office, suspending the Constitution, dissolving the Legislature and Supreme Court, seizing control of the means of communication, outlawing all political parties, closing the National University, and sending anyone who objected to prison, exile, or the next world.

The coup was innocent of ideology. The president wished to purge some officers he believed less than serious about their oaths to uphold the constitution. Before he could do so, they purged him. In consolidating power they hurt so many Panamanians so badly that relinquishing it would expose them to great retribution. Accordingly, they clung to it ruthlessly and reversed Panama's previous priorities to increase their own ranks. By the end there were 20,000 soldiers in a land of 2 million, the U.S. equivalent of an army of 20 million, a well-armed well-trained soldier for every 100 civilians, men, women, and children.

Panama suffered invasion from within, occupation by an army whose soldiers were native-born but whose purposes were foreign to the well-being of the people and the health of the state.

The officers who made the coup had begun their careers as policemen when Panama's police ran prostitution and contraband. Military rule in Panama was animated by the radical egotism common to criminals and corrupt cops. Under Omar Torrijos, who was in charge by 1969, Panama's army went into trafficking in drugs and weapons, even in human beings, and provided services to lawbreakers worldwide. Manuel Noriega was the main bagman, as well as the main hitman and spy. Torrijos called him "mi gangster."

Meanwhile, without any help from people in uniform, Panamanians had been pressing their case for sovereignty in their own country. In 1964, when riots along the Canal Zone border left 21 Panamanians and four Americans dead, Panama's civilian president broke diplomatic relations with the U.S. That December his elected successor and Lyndon Johnson jointly agreed to negotiate a new arrangement.

Johnson didn't agree because the 1903 treaty was unfair but because a new one was the best means to protect the U.S. national interest in Panama, which was and is to keep the Canal open and the isthmus in friendly hands. In 1967 a draft was produced. It represented about the best deal for Panama that two thirds of the U.S. Senate would vote for, but it had to be withdrawn at once. Panamanians weren't satisfied with it.

The problem was one noted in some divorces. A party has been offended and wants the other to suffer, so that a reasonable solution is by definition no good. Thus, while the U.S. didn't impose military rule on Panama, U.S. administrations found it handy in concluding a treaty the Senate could ratify. The U.S. gave massive support to Torrijos and the Panamanian military and got political return. The 1977 treaty package that Torrijos presented to Panama as having been wrung from the gringos was the 1967 deal warmed over.

Omar Torrijos was a fake nationalist, a fake populist, and a fake revolutionary. Wherever the real thing showed its head in Panama, he had Noriega suppress or torture or kill it. And he was Washington's faithful hound. For a bribe of a mere $12 million he took a decomposing Shah off Jimmy Carter's hands, and when Dr. Miguel Bernal, a law professor, protested in public, Noriega's goons beat him into six months' aphasia--in the street where people could watch and learn fear and obedience. A CBS TV crew filmed part of it; I have a copy. Things like that beating are why I lose patience with the pose Noriega strikes in his memoirs.

Noriega, too, was Washington's hound, though in the end unfaithful. In 1963 the CIA made him one of its "assets". The CIA helped him up through the ranks--e.g., passed him dirt on the U.S. senators who visited Panama prior to treaty ratification with which to impress Torrijos. By 1983, with Torrijos dead in a plane crash, Noriega was Commandant of the PDF and unquestioned boss of Panama--proof positive, like Mobuto and too many others, that the only thing worse than a failed CIA operation is a successful one.

In 1983 Noriega began helping the U.S. government break a U.S. law forbidding provision of "military equipment, military training or advice. . . for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua." (1) The money for what we now call Iran-Contra moved through Panamanian banks and shell companies. Contras received training at a base called Panajungla in western Panama. And Noriega was a key figure in the CIA airlift of weapons to the Contras. Israeli stocks of captured PLO weapons went from Texas to clandestine airstrips Noriega had established in Honduras and Costa Rica during the 1970s when the PDF was smuggling weapons to the Sandinistas, the same strips later used for smuggling cocaine under $10 million per month general services contract between the PDF and the Medallin cartel.

The U.S. had two governments, a visible one headed by Ronald Reagan and an invisible one Ollie North took blame for running. The link, Noriega suggests, was Bush. "Bush was handling the Contras business directly," he says on page 78. He leaves out his own part in Iran-Contra, including this: since the weapons planes were empty on flights north, he arranged for cocaine to be loaded on them. The CIA was buying the gas and protecting the whole affair from law enforcement--which put the U.S. in the drug war on both sides. It also contributed to Noriega's undoing.

What caused the falling-out between the U.S. and Noriega? The invisible government loved him for the goon he was. The visibles insisted he buff up his image. He went all out, did something Torrijos was too wise to fool with: he scheduled elections. Then he flew to Washington and let Secretary of State George Shultz pick Panama's puppet president. The choice was a young man named Barletta who happened to be a former student of Shultz's at the University of Chicago. A little electoral fraud, and Barletta was in. Then, in the wake of a revolting murder, Noriega threw Barletta out.

Hugo Spadafora, a physician, raised volunteers in Panama and led them against Somoza, becoming a hero in the process. After the Sandinistas' victory he became disillusioned with them and helped the Contras from Costa Rica. He learned of the cocaine going north and denounced Noriega as being behind it. On September 13, 1985, he crossed into Panama and was arrested near the border by a member of the PDF. His body, headless and bearing the marks of prolonged torture, was found the next day on the Costa Rican side of the border.

In the furor that followed, puppet president Barletta, in New York to speak at the U.N., answered a reporter's question by pledging to name a special investigating commission. Noriega, summoned him home and dismissed him.

In his memoirs, Noriega leaves out Barletta's New York statement and divorces firing him from the murder. He acknowledges receiving calls from the U.S. ambassador speaking for George Shultz and from Nestor Sánchez, CIA superspook, then on the National Security Council, warning him not to fire Batletta. He quotes Sánchez: "You are going to have problems, many, many problems as a result." He quotes Barletta saying, "You will be sorry if you get rid of me," and admits "time proved him right." What does Noriega give as his reason for canning Barletta, thereby incurring Washington's disfavor? A group of legislators were "fed up with him". (2)

Hogwash! If there was one thing Manuel Noriega cared nothing about it was the feelings of his civilian flunkies. He dumped a puppet president before Barletta and two after. Besides, everyone knew that, as Shultz's ex-student, Barletta was sacrosanct. That was clear in 1984 when Ernesto Perez Balladares, Panama's current president, a much stronger candidate with his own Ph.D. in economics (alas for him from Wharton not Chicago), sought the official party's nomination then left at once on a lengthy visit to Spain. For his health, one assumed. In April, 1994, he told me particulars in an interview: Noriega threatened to murder his young daughters.

Noriega made no attempt to find Spadafora's murderers. That surprised no one in Panama. If he'd wanted the crime solved he could have kept Barletta and let him name a commission and spared himself much grief with Washington. Few in Panama doubted he'd ordered it, despite his being in Paris when it occurred. Noriega ran Panama and the PDF. People who did things against his orders invariably ended up wishing they hadn't, and Noriega rewarded those known to be involved. The sergeant who arrested Spadafora, a karate enthusiast with the nickname "Bruce Lee", received six months' paid vacation in Taiwan.

Murder will out. In April, 1986, the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held closed-door hearings on Panama. During them a National Security Agency (NSA) intercept was read aloud: part of a phone call made by Noriega on the day Spadafora died to Major Luis Cordoba, commander of the military district in which Spadafora was arrested.

Córdoba: "We have the rabid dog."

Noriega: "And what does one do with a dog that has rabies?"

Untreated rabies is fatal, but the reaction to the vaccine can be almost as bad. A dog suspected of rabies who has bitten someone is decapitated so that a pathologist may examine brain tissue for definitive diagnosis.

In July, 1986, Panamanian journalist Guillermo Sanchez Bourbon, then on his second tour of exile at the hands of Panama's dictatorship, learned of the NSA intercept through a person who had been at the closed hearing. He published its content in a column in the Panama City daily La Prensa. In June, 1988, he and I published an article in Harper's about the Spadafora murder quoting the NSA intercept.

In America's Prisoner Peter Eisner accuses Guillermo and me of making up the NSA intercept. We didn't. Eisner credits us with being the key figures in linking Noriega to Spadafora's murder, which Eisner calls "the most significant item cited in rallying opposition to him both in Panama and in the United States." We did our bit but weren't first. Before us came Noriega for firing Barletta lest he name an investigating commission and for refusing to find and punish the culprits. After Noriega and still before us came Seymour M. Hersh.

In June 12, 1986, Hersh published an article in the New York Times quoting U.S. government sources on Noriega's crimes. Of Spadafora he said, "The D.I.A. is known to have intelligence demonstrating that General Noriega ordered the killing." (3) I spoke with Seymour Hersh by telephone on May 7, 1997. He told me the intelligence referred to in the sentence I have just quoted was the text of the intercept. He quoted that text to me without my prompting. His mention of the Defense Intelligence Agency suggests that his source was with the Defense Department. The source of Guillermo's column was employed elsewhere.

John Dinges mentions the closed session of the senate subcommittee in his book Our Man in Panama, published in 1990, saying he could only learn "one detail":

At the time of Spadafora's death, the U.S. National Security Agency was intercepting Noriega's calls to Panama from France. One of the calls, between Noriega and Chiriqui commander Major Luis Cordoba, was thought to refer to Spadafora. It took place on the afternoon of September 13, 1985, the day Spadafora was killed.

"We have the rabid dog," Cordoba said according to the intercept.

"What do you do with a rabid dog?" Noriega was said to have replied. (3)

As proof of Noriega's innocence of the Spadafora murder, Eisner cites "Dewey" Clarridge and other CIA sources. I wonder if Eisner believes tobacco company executives when they say their products are innocent of being addictive and carcinogenic.

Barletta was the fig leaf that made Noriega respectable to the visible government of the U.S. His removal provoked an escalating series of reciprocal insults and injuries. Then a disgruntled PDF officer went public with inside dope on the PDF's crimes, and forests were milled into newsprint to spread the details. The people of Panama went into the streets and were repressed brutally in front of the world's TV cameras. A Miami grand jury indicted Noriega for drug-dealing. By then. early 1988, the United States' problem with its former protJgJ was doomed to end in military intervention.

By creating an army in Panama where none existed the U.S. wrecked the political ecology of a healthy community and disturbed the military ecology of a region where it had vital interests. By providing massive military aid to Torrijos and his successors the U.S. made the PDF superior to its garrison on the isthmus. Since the PDF fit most of the RICO statute's definition of "a continuing criminal enterprise", and since its commander was as confirmed an enemy of the U.S. as the planet provided, the U.S., by its own action--criminal, stupid, you call it--had compromised its national security interest in Panama. The isthmus was in unfriendly hands and the Canal liable to closure at the PDF's whim.

There was still time, however, for one last blunder. In February, 1988, the U.S. froze Panama's assets and imposed economic sanctions. This cowardly action, taken at the urging of erstwhile Noriega cronies who profited from it, damaged Panama and its people more severely than the invasion and may well have caused greater loss of life. It confirmed the PDF in enmity toward the U.S. and gave its commander his first semblance of being a patriot. In April, 1988 U.S. troops began holding night firefights with PDF intruders near the tank farm on Howard Air Force Base in the former Canal Zone. (5)

The problem wasn't Noriega. In August, 1988, he warned those who clamored for him to leave power, "Put up with Noriega, those who come after are worse!" As an example he named Luis Cordoba. The problem was the PDF. The U.S. couldn't make up with it or pretend it wasn't there. Nearly two years of dawdling, of trying this or that cut-rate remedy, of hoping the Panama mess would just go away, prolonged Panama's agony and made the final bill higher. At length the U.S. faced reality: it could write off its national interest in Panama or it could destroy the PDF, its creation.

Why did Bush lie? Telling the truth would have involved admitting that U.S. administrations, including two he'd held high office in, and the CIA, of which he'd been director, had botched things utterly in Panama. Noriega, meanwhile, was an unfaithful hound whose acned scowl had been on everyone's TV screen. The call wasn't close.

Bush may also have had private reasons for the invasion. During it U.S. forces confiscated 15,000 boxes of documents that may have contained evidence of impeachable Iran-Contra offenses. The documents are still in Panama, on a U.S. base, but a source I believe told me that no inventory was taken for four months and that the evidence chain has been broken.

What about long-term interests? On page 56 of America's Prisoner Noriega ascribes the invasion to "U.S. rejection of any scenario in which future control of the Panama Canal might be in the hands of an independent, sovereign Panama--supported by Japan."

This sounds very like the reason for a repeat U.S. invasion of Panama in John le Carre's recent novel The Tailor of Panama. I asked le Carre about it and can't improve on his answer:

I researched the [Japan] matter deeply and came to the conclusion that the U.S. phobia toward Japan (then at its height) played a big part, rightly or wrongly, in the rationale behind the invasion. The scenario of preventing Japanese control of the Canal played well on the Hill.

There are three phrases that touch on Noriega I wish I'd coined. Two are anonymous. "You can't buy him, but you can rent him," sounds CIA. "We took Ali Baba but left the 40 thieves," sounds U.S. Army and is a perfect description of Just Cause's effect on Panamanian politics.



Noriega’s mentor was Michael Harari, a Mossad intelligence agent. When Harari finished directing Mossad death squads against the PLO in the early 1970s, he was transferred to Central and South America. Harari supervised what became known as the Harari Network, set up in 1982 by the Reagan administration and the Israeli government, to run a secret aid program for the Nicaraguan contras.
Operating out of Mexico, Panama, and Florida, the network integrated his operations with the emerging cocaine trade, particularly those of Colombia’s Medellin and Cali cocaine cartels, and shipped guns to the Contras and smuggled cocaine from Colombia to the US via Panama. It was the CIA who had set up the meetings in which various Colombian drug dealers organised into a drug trafficking Medellin cartel in 1981, permitting it to deal with a group rather than many independent drug dealers.146



Let's go back, though, to when he was 15 at the Instituto, the illegitimate son of a seamstress who gave him away and died without his ever knowing her. Someone, an agent of the United States of America, attached to a unit I later served with, seduced him into the world's second oldest profession, corrupted him and set him on a lifelong path of being corrupt and corrupting others. I wish whoever it was had left him alone.

(1) The first of the so-called Bolland Amendments was passed in December, 1982.

(2) Quotes in this paragraph are from America's Prisoner, pp. 122-123.

(3) Seymour M. Hersh, "Panama Strongman Said to Trade in Drugs, Arms, and Illicit Money," The New York Times, June 12, 1986, p. A18.

(4) John Dinges, Our Man in Panama (New York, 1990) p. 239.

(5) I first heard of these skirmishes from students of mine who lived at Howard. Information about them is available in Nicholas E. Reynolds, Just Cause: Marine Operations in Panama 1988-1989, History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps (Washington, 1996) p. 6 ff.

(6) Victor Ostrovsky, By Way of Deception, (New York, 1991) pp. 106-107.

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