The president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, announced on Twitter on 2 December that the repatriation and immediate imprisonment of Manuel Noriega would enable Panamanians to ‘finally close this bitter chapter’ of history. Noriega arrived in Panama City nine days later, the third and final stop on a multinational extradition tour that began with his ousting by the US military in January 1990 in Operation Just Cause. Incarcerated for nearly two decades in Miami on drug trafficking charges, Noriega then performed a shorter stint in a Paris jail for money laundering and was convicted in absentia in Panama for the murder of two political opponents in the 1980s. He is now in the El Renacer prison in Gamboa.
Residents of El Chorrillo, a poor area of Panama City, may not share Martinelli’s sense of justice and closure. It was bombed so heavily during Operation Just Cause that ambulance drivers referred to it as ‘Little Hiroshima’. According to the US military, a few hundred Panamanian civilians were killed; the UN puts the number at 2500 and other estimates are even higher. On the invasion’s tenth anniversary in 1999, US General Marc Cisneros said:
I think we could have done it with less troops and less destruction. We made it look like we were battling Goliath... We are mesmerized with firepower. We have all these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff.
At the time of the invasion – the largest US operation since Vietnam, involving more than 27,000 troops – the military highlighted the justness of Just Cause for the US public by advertising the discovery of 50 pounds of cocaine in a house regularly visited by the narco-villain Noriega. The amount was subsequently inflated to 110 pounds, before the Pentagon revealed that the stuff wasn’t cocaine but tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Though that was almost as bad: according to a Defense Department spokeswoman, it was ‘a substance they use in voodoo rituals’.
The justness of the cause might have been more readily apparent had the president who launched the war (George H.W. Bush) not been the same character who, as director of the CIA in 1976, ensured that payments to Noriega – an agency asset – continued despite his involvement in the international drug trade. Noriega’s narcotrafficking was not an overwhelming moral or strategic concern for the US until the latter part of the 1980s, when he began to be seen as a less pliant ally in Washington’s war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and an obstacle to regional business interests.
My grandfather was US Southern Command’s director of military intelligence between 1971 and 1976, when Noriega was Panama’s director of military intelligence under Omar Torrijos. The pair used to meet in the Tunnel, a US nuclear bunker built into the side of a hill and equipped with everything necessary to ease the tedium of nuclear holocaust: air conditioning, a church, an oversized paper shredder. My grandfather died in 2003. Towards the end of his life he claimed that Noriega’s crimes had included dropping opponents from aircraft into bodies of water. The technique is generally associated with US-backed regimes in the Southern Cone, and my grandfather may have been mixing up his dictators: around the same time he began to suspect the other residents of his nursing home of using their oxygen tanks for obscure communist purposes.
As Noam Chomsky points out in What Uncle Sam Really Wants (1992), the atrocities committed by Noriega pale in comparison to those carried out by the CIA-sponsored Battalion 3-16 death squad in Honduras, which in turn look fairly mild next to the terroristic policies of the US-backed regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador. Of Operation Just Cause, Chomsky writes: ‘The US put the bankers back in power after the invasion. Noriega's involvement in drug trafficking had been trivial compared to theirs.’ According to a report published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting in 1990, ‘Noriega's involvement in drug trafficking was purportedly heaviest in the early 1980s when his relationship with the US was especially close.’ And in Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press (1998), Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair write:
The greatest irony of all is that, under the US-installed successor to Noriega, Guillermo Endara, Panama became the province of the Cali cartel, which rushed in after the Medellín cartel was evicted along with Noriega. By the early 1990s, Panama's role in the Latin American drug trade and its transmission routes to the US had become more crucial than ever.