Noriega's future captivates Panama

The former Panamanian dictator's term ended Sunday. He faces extradition to France or being sent back to Panama.

The end of Manuel Noriega's US prison term – and the former Panamanian dictator's possible extradition to France on money-laundering charges – has reopened a polarizing chapter for Panamanians.

General Noriega, once one of the most hailed informants of the Central Intelligence Agency, fell from grace in the 1980s amid charges of drug-running, rigged elections, and repression. After the US-led invasion of Panama on Dec. 20, 1989, dubbed "Operation Just Cause," he served more than 15 years in a federal detention center in Miami and was due for release last Sunday.

But his fate is uncertain. France wants him extradited on money-laundering charges, which would mean up to 10 years in prison. His lawyers have asked that he be sent home to Panama as a prisoner-of-war, where he faces more severe charges of embezzlement, corruption, and murder here. He will stay in US custody until the conclusion of the appeals process over the French extradition request, which experts expect him to lose.

Many Panamanians want Noriega home

In Panama, the legal wrangle has yielded a barrage of TV documentaries and commentary on his reign and his ultimate fate. Most Panamanians say they want him home and the chapter closed forever.

"If we don't forget, we will be worse still," says Roberto Hazlewood, a lifelong resident of El Chorrillo, the neighborhood that bore the brunt of the 1989 invasion. "He is a Panamanian; he should come back and face what he did here. If he goes to France, when he is ready to be released there, it will all start over again."

Mr. Hazlewood, like many residents throughout the city, says he would like Noriega home as a matter of justice. Noriega's friends and allies want him in Panama for a different reason: They say he has served long enough.

"He represents no political threat; he just wants to be with his grandchildren and die in his land," says retired Maj. Jose Trujillo, who served alongside Noriega in the military.

"He's like Alka-Seltzer," he continues. "He will make a big splash, and then it will all fizzle."

That the end of Noriega's prison term has led to such fury and soul-searching is a sign to some observers that the country is not ready for his return. Some Panamanians are worried that he could be a destabilizing figure in a country that has become a regional economic powerhouse and is hailed for its relative stability and security.

"It demonstrates that our democracy is not sufficiently mature," says Edwin Cabrera, a political analyst and radio journalist in Panama.

Those who might be least enthusiastic about his return are officials in President Martin Torrijos's Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), to which Noriega used to belong.

Many in the party used to serve with Noriega – and they don't, experts say, want to be associated with the past.

"They feel that ... he is reviving the whole past," says Mario Rognoni, a former minister and friend of Noriega. "That would hurt their chances in the next election. That's why they don't want the name Noriega even mentioned before May of 2009."

Panamanian analyst Carlos Guevara-Mann argues that "Noriega still keeps a lot of secrets to himself, his blackmail potential is very strong, and the [PRD] fears he would use that blackmail potential against the government and the people who collaborated with him before."

Weak judiciary

But the debate over Noriega's future has revealed larger institutional problems, says Mr. Guevara-Mann, who teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Among the issues at the top of the list is a dysfunctional judicial system, he says. In fact, those Panamanians who want Noriega to go to France feel that way for a simple reason, he says – it's the only way to get a fair trial.

"This has raised people's awareness about the failures of the Panamanian justice system," says Guevara-Mann. "Just a handful of collaborators of the military regime have been prosecuted. They want to ensure that Noriega receives punishment for all the terrible deeds he did."

That Noriega has been singled out as the sole perpetrator of the era is troubling to many – a fact that has been underlined by the end of his term in US prison.

Jose Antonio Aizpurua's apartment once overlooked the barracks in El Chorrillo that Noriega occupied when he was in power. Once a symbol of the iron grip he held on this nation, they have since been razed and replaced by a scrappy city park, where a group of boys kicks around a ball across a weed-filled basketball court.

Today Mr. Aizpurua has a view of the park, which he administrates. "If he has something to pay, he should come here and pay it," says Aizpurua, who supports Noriega and says insecurity has increased since he left. "He is painted as a monster, but he was not the only one."

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