Panama's Noriega returns: Now, what secrets might he spill?

As the former dictator Manuel Noriega returns to Panama, residents are wondering what sorts of information he could share about the past. 

Esteban Felix/AP
Photographs of Panama's former dictator Manuel Noriega cover a wall of a home near Noriega's former headquarters in the El Chorrillo neighborhood of Panama City, Friday. Noriega, who will be extradited from France to Panama on Sunday, was ousted in the United States' 1989 invasion of Panama.

More than two decades after Manuel Noriega was ousted from Panama and jailed on drug trafficking charges in the US, the former dictator is set to arrive home today, bringing closure to the legal jostling over where he should serve sentences for money laundering and murder.

Yet in many ways his return to the Central American nation could become a new chapter, re-opening old wounds for some, and for others, bringing a sense of uncertainty over what sorts of information he could share about the past, including old ties with drug cartels and politicians or business leaders in the country, says Edwin Cabrera, a journalist in Panama City.

“Above all his return has generated expectations about whether he is going to talk, and if he does, what he is going to say,” says Mr. Cabrera.

Mr. Noriega, a one-time ally of the US for his work against Soviet-funded allies in Central America, took power in 1983. But he fell out of grace with American authorities for his involvement with drug cartels and was ultimately overthrown in the December 1989 US invasion “Operation Just Cause” under former President George H.W. Bush.

After surrendering to US forces on January, 3, 1990, he was flown to the US and convicted of drug racketeering. He served 20 years behind bars in Miami.

He was extradited to France in April 2010 to face charges there for money laundering and given seven years. But convicted in absentia at home for murder, Noriega’s lawyers had fought for his return home. They won that battle last month. When he arrives in Panama Sunday at 5:30 p.m., he will be sent right to the Renacer prison, authorities say.

As legal battles over serving in Panama have ensued, the press at home has taken citizens on an historic ride, featuring Noriega in military uniform or wielding a machete, reminding Panamanians of a period of conflict, says Orlando Perez, a Panama expert at Central Michigan University, who is conducting research in Panama.

“I think for many his return will be closure, but for others it will open the wounds of the late 1980s period,” says Mr. Perez. “If he is outside Panama, no one cares or remembers. Having him here, seeing the file footage on TV, with him wearing military uniforms, railing against the US, etc., brings back memories of that period.”

Already groups are protesting to ensure that Noriega receives no special treatment by the justice system, rumors reflected in local cartoons depicting Noriega’s prison cell with plasma TV, for example. His foes worry that given his age, 77, and frail health, he will be granted house arrest. He is also wanted for other alleged murders and disappearances that foes would like to see him tried for.

The group Civil Crusade, which formed in the height of the Noriega dictatorship, gathered for marches Friday and plans another for Sunday, to make sure justice is fully served. “We are marching to reaffirm our faith in justice,” Roberto Brenes, one of the historic leaders of the group, told the local press.

There is no popular following in Panama for Noriega. Quietly some who served in the defense forces or appreciated his stance against the “imperialist US” may support him. But most, especially youths, who might see Noriega as a figure out of a history book, are focused more on economic growth – Panama has become an economic powerhouse in the region in the years since Noriega left – and security. Panama is relatively safe compared to other Central American nations, but drug trafficking organizations are posing a new threat.

But his return could have an impact politically. Some in the party that supported the military dictatorship, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), could be worried that Noriega is a stain on their electoral chances in upcoming races, says Perez. The PRD is the current opposition party to the administration of Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, who could gain from Noriega’s return. The PRD has restructured and made great democratic strides.

“They have gained quite a bit,” says Perez. “Noriega comes back to some extent and spoils that.”

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