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Manuel NoriegaManuel Noriega

[man wel' nor E A' guh] military leader of Panama, 1983-1989

Manuel Antonio Noriega Morena was born in a poor area of Panama City in 1934. Unable to afford a formal education, he accepted a scholarship to a military school in Lima, Peru. On his return to Panama, he was commissioned a sublieutenant in the Panamanian National Guard.

In October 1968, Noriega participated in a coup led by Omar Torrijos that overthrew the government of President Arnulfo Arias. Noriega's loyalty to Torrijos earned him a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. As head of Panama's G-2 intelligence service in 1969, Noriega was responsible for dealing with dissidents and established a record of harassing, arresting, imprisoning and/or exiling critics of the Torrijos regime.

Torrijos' death in a plane crash in 1981 set off a power struggle between civilian and military leaders that resulted in General Dario Paredes taking control of the government and Noriega becoming his Chief of Staff. After succeeding Paredes in 1983, Noriega promoted Nicolas Barletta as candidate for President. But once Barletta was elected, Noriega had him removed because of Barletta's advocacy of an investigation into the grisly murder and dismemberment of Noriega critic Dr. Hugo Spadafora.

Promoting himself to General and taking command of the Panamanian Army, Noriega gave no sign of willingness to return the government to civilian control. The United States, accusing him of engaging in election fraud, drug trafficking, money laundering, and espionage against the United States, tried to convince Noriega to step down in early 1988. A U.S. indictment on drug charges proved ineffective, as did economic sanctions against Nicaragua. Matters became more complicated when it was disclosed that Noriega had been in the pay of the U.S. Army and the CIA for more than 30 years. He had been working as a double agent, collecting money from the United States while at the same time working for Communist governments, turning over highly classified U.S. intelligence materials to Cuba. He had also been selling arms to Cuban-backed guerrillas in Latin America, in addition to making millions of dollars trafficking in drugs.

In December 1989, U.S. armed forces invaded Panama, captured Noriega, and brought him to Miami for trial. In 1992 he was convicted on eight counts of racketeering, drug trafficking and money laundering. He is currently serving a 40-year sentence in a U.S. federal penitentiary.

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This page was last updated on 12/29/2015.

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