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Manuel Noriega, former U.S.-backed dictator of Panama dies

May 31, 2017

The mug shot of Manuel Noriega taken by U.S. forces occupying Panama in January 1990.

Manuel Antonio Noriega, the Panamanian army officer and U.S.-backed dictator of Panama from 1983 until 1989, who became such an embarrassment to the United States that American troops were finally sent in to depose him, has died. He passed away on Monday night (May 29) in Panama City, following brain surgery. He was 83 years old.

A Panamanian dictatorship born in the USA

Manuel Noriega was born in Panama City but he learned the fundamentals of his future profession in the United States.

In 1967, as a first lieutenant in the Panamanian Defense Forces, Noriega traveled to the United States and attended the U.S. Army’s infamous (and since renamed) School of the Americas in Columbus, Georgia. At the time, this was a sort of training centre for potential pro-U.S. Latin American dictators.

Noriega’s courses at the U.S. Army school included infantry operations, intelligence gathering and Jungle warfare. He also went on to a course in psychological operations (psyops) at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

In 1968 Noriega supported the successful coup at home of another School of the Americas graduate, Omar Torrijos. who led Panama until he died in a plane crash in 1981.

In the 1970s and into the mid 1980s, Noriega—who was a paid CIA asset by the 1970s—was the CIA’s key man in Panama. He was also known to be a major cocaine trafficker but the CIA didn’t seem to mind this in the least.

On page 289 of Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press (1998), authors Alexander Cockburn and Jeffery St. Clair write that:

“When the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs attempted to indict Noriega in 1971 for drug trafficking, the CIA intervened to protect their man in Panama.”

Noriega was especially invaluable to the CIA for his ability to facilitate the spy agency’s covert and illegal program of supplying weapons and cash to various U.S.-backed right-wing counter-insurgency and para-military groups in Latin America. And no doubt Noriega’s drug trafficking network was a big help in this regard.

One of the groups that Noriega helped the CIA supply was the Contras fighting the Sandanista regime in Nicaragua, which had toppled the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979.

In 1986 the Reagan Administration acknowledged that cocaine smuggling profits had illegally helped fund the Contra rebels but pinned the responsibility on low-ranking officials, such as Colonel Oliver North, who helped run the Contra war against the Sandanistas. It is well-documented that Oliver North was aware that both Noriega and the Contras were up to their necks in the illegal drug trade.

By 1996, evidence of the brutality and criminality of Noriega’s regime had become impossible to overlook and the U.S. government began to distance itself from the Noriega regime,

In June of 1986, the New York Times began publishing a series devastating articles by Seymour Hersh detailing Manuel Noriega’s strategic intelligence connection to the United States, along with his involvement in both illicit money laundering and drug trafficking—particularly his long relationship with Colombian drug dealers, meaning the Medelin drug cartel.

In 1988 a shocked U.S. government indicted Manuel Noriega on drug trafficking charges.

In May of 1989 Noriega nullified the results of the Panamanian general election in mid-vote and sent his para-military Dignity Battalions into the streets to brutally quell protests and just generally draw blood from members of the political coalition that opposed his rule.

Unfortunately (for him) he let the violence he unleashed spillover against U.S. citizens in Panama.

The direct trigger for U.S. military action against the Noriega regime (which had been in the planning since at least February of 1989) was the murder by Panamanian soldiers, of United States Marine First Lieutenant Robert Paz on December 16.

The U.S. invasion of Panama on December 20, 1989 was called Operation Just Cause and lasted until late January 1990. The major tasks were to protect U.S. lives and key facilities, capture and deliver Noriega to competent authority, neutralize and restructure the Panamanian Defense forces and establish a government acceptable to the United States.

Guillermo Endara, opposition coalition leader and a presidential candidate in the annulled general election, was sworn in as president by a judge on the night preceding the invasion. He was later bitterly critical of the destruction left by the U.S. invasion.

Manuel Noriega was captured on January 3, 1990 and brought to the U.S. to stand trial. In 1992 he was convicted on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering and sentenced to 40 years in prison—later reduced to 30 years and then 17. He was released from prison on September 9, 2007.

On April 26, 2010, after a lengthy court battle, Noriega was extradited to France to stand trial on charges that he had laundered USD$3 million in drug profits by purchasing luxury apartments in Paris. He was duly convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison and the forfeiture of frozen assets totaling some USD$3.6 million.

France allowed Noriega to be extradited to Panama, to serve his seven year sentence and face charges of human rights violations. On December 2011, 22 years after the U.S. Invasion to “arrest” him, he returned to Panama City and was confined to the El Renacer prison.

In January of 2017 Noriega was released from El Renacer and placed under house arrest to prepare for surgery to remove a benign brain tumor diagnosed in 2012.

On March 7, 2017, he suffered a brain hemorrhage during the surgery and was put into an induced coma in the intensive care unit of Santo Tomas hospital in Panama City, which is where he passed away.

His is survived by a wife and three daughters.

Operation  Nifty Package

On the fifth day of the U.S. invasion of Panama, Manuel Noriega and four others took sanctuary in the Apostolic Nunciature, the Holy See‘s embassy in Panama. U.S. soldiers then erected a sort of siege around the Nunciature and waged 10 days of psychological harassment under the name Operation Nifty Package.

A notable part of this harassment took the form of playing rock music at deafening volume around the clock.

A supplemental “after action” report published by the U.S. military’s Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) on Operation Just Cause gives some details about the selection of the weaponized music played during Operation Nifty Package.

The report explains that SCN (Southern Commamd Network) radio which served the U.S. invasion forces opened up the phone lines on December 21 and that the rock songs which Noriega (an opera fan) was subjected to for 10 straight days were largely requests from American soldiers. With the exception being December 25, when only Christmas music was played.

The report also provides the most complete playlist available (which apparently has never before been fully transcribed on the Web).

The songs below are all linked to streaming versions on YouTube, for your listening and viewing pleasure.

A playlist to bring down a dictatorship

(You’ve Got) Another Thing Coming—Judas Priest
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover—Paul Simon
All over But the Crying—Georgia Satellites
All I Want is You—U2
Big Shot—Billy Joel
Blue Collar Man—Styx
Born to Run—Bruce Springsteen
Bring Down the Hammer—Georgia Satellites 1
Change—Tears for Fears
Cleaning Up the Town—The Bus Boys
Cry for Freedom—White Lion 2
Crying in the Chapel—June Valli 3
Dancing in the Streets—David Bowie and Mick Jagger
Danger Zone—Kenny Loggins
Dead Man’s Party—Oingo Boingo
Don’t Look Back—Boston
Don’t Fear the Reaper—Blue Oyster Cult
Don’t Close Your Eyes—Kix
Eat My Shorts—Rick Dees
Electric Spanking of War Babies—Funkadelic
Feel a Whole Lot Better (When You’re Gone)—Tom Petty
Flesh For Fantasy—Billy Idol
Freedom, No Compromise—Little Steven
Ghost Riders in the Sky—The Outlaws
Give it Up—K.C. and the Sunshine Band
God Bless the USA—Lee Greenwood
Guilty—Bonham
Hair of the Dog–Nazareth 4
Hang ’Em High—Van Halen
Hangin’ Tough—New Kids on the Block
Heaven’s on Fire—Kiss
Hello it’s Me—Todd Rundgren
Hello—We’re Lonely—Tom T. Hall and Patti Page 5
Helter Skelter—The Beatles
I Fought the law (and the Law Won)—Bobby Fuller
If I Had a Rocket launcher—Bruce Cockburn 6
I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down—Paul Young
In My Time of Dying—Led Zeppelin
Iron Man—Black Sabbath
It Keeps You Runnin’—Doobie Brothers
Judgement Day—Whitesnake
Jungle Love—Steve Miller Band
Just Like Jesse James—Cher
Mayor of Simpleton—XTC
Midnight Rider—Allman Brothers
Mister Blue—The Fleetwoods
Naughty Naughty—Danger Danger
Never Gonna Give You Up—Rick Astley
Never Tear Us Apart—INXS
No Particular Place To Go—Chuck Berry
No More Mister Nice Guy—Alice Cooper
No Alibis—Eric Clapton
Nowhere to Run—Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
One Way Ticket—George Thorogood and the Destroyers
Panama—Van Halen
Paradise City—Guns N’ Roses
Paranoid—Black Sabbath
Patience—Guns N’ Roses
People Are Strange—The Doors
Poor Little Fool—Ricky Nelson
Prisoner of the Highway—Ronnie Milsap
Prisoners of Rock and Roll—Neil Young
Refugee—Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Renegade—Styx
Rock and a Hard Place—Rolling Stones
Run to the Hills—Iron Maiden
Run Like Hell—Pink Floyd
Screaming for Vengeance—Judas Priest
She’s Got a Big  Posse—Arabian Prince
Shot in the Dark—Ozzy Osbourne
Star Spangled Banner—Jimi Hendrix
Stay Hungry—Twisted Sister
Strange Days—The Doors
Takin’ it to the Streets—Doobie Brothers
The End—The Doors
The Party’s Over (Hopelessly in Love)—Journey
The Race is On—Sawyer Brown
The Pusher—Steppenwolf
The Long Arm of the Law—Warren Zevon
The Secret of My Success—Night Ranger
They’re Coming to Take Me Away—Napoleon XIV 7
This Means War—Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Time is on my Side—Rolling Stones
Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die—Jethro Tull
Voodoo Child—Jimi Hendrix
Wait for You—Bonham
Waiting for a Friend—Rolling Stones
Wanted Dead or Alive—Bon Jovi
Wanted Man—Ratt 8
War Pigs—Black Sabbath
We Didn’t Start the Fire—Billy Joel
We Gotta Get Outta This Place—The Animals
We’re Not Gonna Take It—Twisted Sister
Who Will You Run To?—Heart
You Send me—Sam Cooke
You Shook Me All Night Long—AC/DC
You Hurt Me (and I Hate You)—Eurythmics
You Got Lucky—Tom Petty
Your Time is Gonna Come—Led Zeppelin
Youth Gone Wild—Skid Row

  1. Listed with no artist.
  2. Listed with title “Freedom Fighter” but there is no such song by the artist.
  3. Listed by “Brenda Lee” who never seems to have recorded the song.
  4. Listed with title “Now You’re Messin’ With a S.O.B.” the hook lyric in Hair of the Dog.
  5. Listed with title “Hello, We’re Here” but there is no such song by the artist.
  6. Listed as by “Bruce Cochran”.
  7. Listed as by “Henry VIII”.
  8. Listed as by “Molly Hatchet”.
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