This world will never be completely free of tyrants, but today that number went down by one. Late Monday evening, the former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega died at the age of 83. As a complicated ally at best and a brutish dictator at worst, Noriega represented a fascinating chapter in geopolitics.
Manuel Noriega was born in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression. His parents abandoned him when he was 5 years old, leaving him to an aunt. Once of age, Noriega joined the military and ascended through the ranks to become the head of military intelligence. By 1968, Panamanian politics crumbled as the military ousted its government elites, ushering in a populist government, led by General Omar Torrijos. In 1983, when Torrijos died in a plane crash, Noriega was perfectly positioned to consolidate power for himself.
As a leader, he maintained an enigmatic reputation that painted him as a rapist, a torturer, and even as a practitioner of black magic. This reputation inspired enough fear among his people who would ensure his stay in power. He recognized the political and financial advantages to controlling the Western hemisphere’s top shipping route. As a result, his estimated financial worth was upwards of $200 million. American DEA agents investigated his regime and eventually prosecuted him for drug smuggling.
On top of Noriega’s local corruption, he also placed himself on the world stage in his attempts to strengthen ties with the United States. In 1986 during the Iran-Contra scandal, Noriega reached out to Col. Oliver North. He even offered to assassinate Sandinista, Noriega’s Nicaraguan counterpart in exchange for a repaired reputation among foreign leaders.
Unfortunately for Noriega, we don’t tolerate regimes that aid our enemies (or at least we didn’t use to.) During the Cold War, Noriega maintained connections to Fidel Castro. By 1989, President George H.W. Bush, former head of the CIA, had had enough. A year earlier, Noriega was indicted on drug charges in Florida; Panamanians organized demonstrations against the US. Finally in December 1989, Panamanian troops killed an American soldier and attacked several others. In response, President Bush sent over 27,000 troops to the tiny Central American nation. By January 3, 1990, Noriega was on his way to a Floridian prison where he was sentenced to 40 years.
After years of legal battles in multiple countries, Noriega suffered from a brain hemorrhage that left him in a coma until he passed. Only God can judge him now.