Remembering Manuel Noriega and His Capture

June 6, 2017

When my book on the history of manhunts was published, I was often asked by friends and family which of the military operations would make the best film. Although Gen. Frederick Funston’s daring raid 100 miles behind enemy lines to capture Philippine insurgent leader Emilio Aguinaldo in 1901 would make a great period drama, I usually replied that the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama to capture Gen. Manuel Antonia Noriega would make an excellent black comedy. With the infamously acne-scarred dictator’s death in a French prison last week, it is worth revisiting the unique combination of malice, self-delusion, and sheer absurdity that made Operation Just Cause one of the most unique campaigns in U.S. military history with exponentially more potential for satire than the lame War Machine.

Noriega rose to power in 1983 and initially served as an important conduit for U.S. aid supporting the Nicaraguan contras. Then again, he was simultaneously shipping arms to Marxist rebels in El Salvador, passing classified information to Cuba, Libya, and Warsaw Pact states, and dealing with terrorist organizations. As Secretary of State George Shultz observed, “You can’t buy [Noriega], you can only rent him.” But it was Noreiga’s profitable side moonlighting in narcotics trafficking that finally convinced the Reagan administration that Noriega was not worth the bother. In February 1988, two separate grand juries indicted him on trafficking and racketeering charges.

Noriega responded with a systematic campaign to harass U.S. military personnel and dependents stationed in Panama, with over 600 incidents reported from February 1988 to May 1989. Southern Command’s incident reports catalogued broken fingers; loosened teeth; abrasions from billy clubs, rubber hoses, and pistols; strip searches; prolonged detentions; and robberies and “fondling” of female military personnel. The worst incident come on March 3, 1989, when armed Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) pulled over 21 U.S. school buses transporting hundreds of American schoolchildren — many under the age of 12 — and held them at gunpoint for several hours. After he stole Panama’s May 1989 presidential elections and had his “Dignity Battalions” beat the opposition’s leaders bloody and unconscious in broad daylight, the Bush administration invoked a provision of the canal treaty that allowed U.S. troops unlimited training exercises. U.S. Southern Command subsequently inaugurated a series of small-scale exercises intended as a show of force to intimidate Noriega.

Noriega was not so easily cowed, however. First, the dictator had literally written a textbook on psychological warfare. Second, years of being Panama’s El Jefe had left him delusional. He once told an American interviewer that he envisioned himself portrayed in the movies by Clint Eastwood because, “He is very macho. He doesn’t take **** from anybody.” During one American exercise involving U.S. military police, Noriega showed up with an entourage and directly approached the U.S. forces. He shook hands with one MP and, in front of Panamanian cameramen, offered himself up for arrest.

“Here I am,” he taunted.

Noriega was not arrested, and even one U.S. general described the dictator’s handling of U.S. pressure as “magnificent.”

On December 15, 1989, he had his puppet National Assembly declare him “Maximum Leader of National Liberation” and head of government. After the Assembly passed a resolution declaring Panama “to be in a state of war” with America, Noriega strode triumphantly to the podium wielding a machete. He boasted: “We the Panamanian people will sit along the banks of the canal to watch the dead bodies of our enemies pass by.” The next evening Panamanian forces shot and killed Marine Corps Lt. Roberto Paz and severely beat an American naval officer who witnessed the shooting, threatening his wife with rape before releasing them the next day.

Whereas U.S. commanders had previously not considered Noriega worth expending American lives to depose, these events erased any doubts regarding the advisability of using force. At the December 17 war council, President George H.W. Bush got straight to the point: “Look, here are my objectives. I want to get Noriega.” A commando raid to apprehend the strongman was deemed infeasible, so President Bush approved Southern Command’s plan to use massive force to overwhelm and demolish the Panamanian Defense Forces, thereby minimizing the time available for them to seize U.S. citizens as hostages. Even if Noriega escaped at H-Hour, he would have no forces to command. Bush gave the order and 23,000 U.S forces — including the 13,000 already stationed in Panama — began to invade the country and remove Noriega from power.

Prior to the invasion, Noriega had been constantly tracked by members of Delta Force, aided by experts from the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency that monitored radio and telephone communications and directed a network of informants tracing the dictator’s movements. Noriega’s last known location was in Colon at 6 pm on Dec. 19. Shortly thereafter, he left in a convoy of cars and buses south towards Panama City. Part of the convoy turned off the road toward Tocumen and Torrijos airfields, while the other half headed straight toward the Comandancia in Panama City. Although the Joint Special Operations Command was confident Noriega had not returned to his headquarters, they could not definitely say where he actually was.

But the reason U.S. Green Berets, SEALs, Air Force Commandos, and Delta Force could not locate Noriega at H-Hour (0100 on Dec. 20) was simple: The dictator was hiding from his wife.

Despite mounting evidence of the impending invasion — Dan Rather anchored a special report announcing that transport planes carrying paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne had just departed from Pope Air Force Base — Noriega dismissed the possibility of a U.S. attack, insisting reports of troop mobilizations were disinformation designed to scare him into fleeing. Unconcerned, he went to a military club and got sloshed. He sent a sergeant on his staff out to get him a prostitute, who met the intoxicated strongman at a recreation center just east of Tocumen airfield. His dalliance was interrupted at 1 a.m., when the thumping sound of an AC-130 gunship’s 105 mm and 40 mm cannon shook the room. Noriega’s bodyguard, Capt. Ivan Castillo, went outside and saw the sky filled with 750 parachutes carrying the 1st Ranger Battalion to the airfield.

Castillo rushed back inside to collect his boss, and the dictator’s entourage piled into two Hyundai hatchbacks. Rangers from Bravo Company, 1/75th shot out the front tires of the first Hyundai as Noriega’s convoy hurdled toward a roadblock on the airfield’s perimeter. Unfortunately, unaware that the dictator was in the back seat, they let the second vehicle turn around and disappear into the night. The next day, when Rangers secured the recreation center, they found Noriega’s uniform and shoes, as the “Maximum Leader” had fled wearing a t-shirt, boxers, and flip-flops.

Although Washington tried to downplay the significance of missing Noriega, a $1 million bounty for information leading to his capture was announced. The avenues of escape were slammed shut throughout Panama. As SEALs watched Panama’s ports and 7th Group’s Green Berets combed the streets of the capital, primary responsibility for hunting Noriega was given to Delta Force. Noriega sightings flooded into the U.S. intelligence network, and analysts tried to separate truth from falsehood. For intelligence that was deemed credible, Delta Force could go “from tip to takeoff” in 30 minutes, and between Dec. 21-24, launched 42 raids on every known or suspected safe house where Noriega could hide.

And this was where things got weird. Although Delta thought they were getting close, they could apparently never catch up to the elusive dictator. Instead, the raiding troops made a series of bizarre discoveries. At Noriega’s residence at Fort Amador, U.S. troops found pictures of Hitler, an extensive pornography collection, a “witches diary” chronicling visits by two voodoo priestesses from Brazil, and 50 kilograms of white powder initially believed to be cocaine, but later identified as flour for making tamales. At Noriega’s home at Altos del Golfo, Delta uncovered more stacks of hardcore pornography, $8 million in U.S. currency, and two religious altars, one of which was decorated with jars containing human internal organs.

But there still was no sign of Noriega.

Noriega was actually hiding out at his secretary’s apartment in Panama City, a needle amongst a pile of needles, where her flamboyant lounge singer husband was driving everybody crazy. Finally, early on the morning of Dec. 24, Castillo went to find an American to take him to Southern Command’s deputy commander, Maj. Gen. Marc Cisneros, in order to betray Noriega in exchange for his own safety. But none of the 7th Infantry soldiers in the patrol that found him spoke Spanish, and Castillo was taken into custody as a prisoner of war before he could divulge the dictator’s location.

At the same time, Monsignor Jose Sebastian Laboa, the papal nuncio to Panama, was desperately trying to reach Cisneros to warn him that Noriega was seeking asylum. As his commanders announced their surrender one-by-one, a depressed Noriega had had an intermediary call Monsignor Laboa and request asylum. Noriega asked the Vatican’s emissary to pick him up at the Panama City Dairy Queen. There, a visibly exhausted Noriega — wearing a T-shirt, Bermuda shorts, and an oversized baseball cap — jumped into the backseat of the Nunciature’s car, and sunk low in his seat to avoid being seen on the short drive to the Nunciature. Around 3:30 p.m., Laboa’s call finally reached the general. As Cisneros picked up the phone, he heard the priest whisper: “He just walked in.”

Manuel Noriega had begun the invasion with a prostitute. He would end it surrounded by nuns.

When Delta Force and other U.S. forces arrived at the Nunciature, they deployed their weapons outward to deter a rescue attempt. For the next week-and-a-half, they surrounded the Nunciature, and attempting to persuade either Noriega to surrender or the Vatican to deny him asylum. On Christmas morning, Gen. Max Thurman, the commander of Southern Command, spoke personally with Laboa at the Nunciature’s gate. American officers noticed that the third-floor balcony of the Holiday Inn, less than 100 yards away, was filled with reporters holding long boom mikes directed at the Nunciature. In order to prevent eavesdropping, Thurman ordered loudspeakers be directed to create a sound barrier.

In yet another surreal scene, on December 27 the 4th Psychological Operations Group went to work. As Delta commander Jerry Boykin recalled: “Being twenty-year olds, the psy-ops guys started playing loud rock music. Really loud.” As it blared around the clock, it occurred to somebody that the music could also be used to agitate Noriega. Hence the they created a playlist heavy on ironically titled songs, such as “Voodoo Child,” “You’re No Good,” and “I Fought the Law.” Whereas Noriega later claimed he could not hear the music, the noise kept the Nunciature staff awake and agitated. Laboa insisted the music stop, and after two days it was replaced by Spanish language reports carrying stories of PDF surrenders in order to demoralize Noriega.

In the end, Monsignor Laboa proved to be the key to influencing Noriega. He had shaped Vatican policy toward Panama for years, and knew that Noriega was “a man, who without a pistol, is manageable by anyone.” Upon Noriega’s arrival, Laboa had the dictator disarmed and confined to a bare bedroom with no air-conditioning and a broken television set, and denied the alcoholic Noriega any liquor. Laboa told Noriega he would never evict him, but also informed Noriega that he had granted approval to U.S. forces to raid the compound should his men attempt to seize control of the Nunciature. He then avoided contact with Noriega and let him stew for a week.

As the days passed, increasing numbers of Panamanians began to gather at the barricades outside the embassy. On Jan. 3, a crowd of more than 10,000 Panamanians descended upon the Avenida Balboa to demonstrate. They banged pots and waved white handkerchiefs, shouting: “Kill the Hitler” and “Justice for the tyrant.” Some skewered pineapples on long sticks and pumped them up and down in the air, taunting “Pineapple face! Pineapple face!” Laboa invited the dictator to talk. Once again, he assured Noriega that he could stay, but suggested he consider the mob outside who wanted to kill him and might overrun the Nunciature. He ominously suggested Noriega could end up like Mussolini, killed by his own people and strung up for the world to see, and urged him to surrender and defend himself in an American courtroom.

Besides, Laboa asked, even if he were to remain safely within the confines of the Nunciature, “Do you really want to spend the rest of your life having nuns wash your underwear?

Noriega was out of options. Just before 9 p.m. on Jan. 3, Noriega emerged from the Nunciature wearing a wrinkled tan uniform with four stars on each shoulder board. Carrying a Bible and a toothbrush, he looked stunned and submissive in the glare of the television camera lights.

Yo soy el General Noriega. Me rindo a las fuerza de los Estados Unidos.” (I am Gen. Noriega, and I am surrendering to U.S. forces).

The ex-dictator was seized by Delta Force operators and hustled aboard a helicopter. (In a sad irony, the pilot of the 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment Black Hawk that transported Noriega was Chief Warrant Officer Cliff Wolcott. Three years later in Mogadishu, it was the shooting down of Wolcott’s “Super Six One” during the hunt for Farah Aideed that triggered the tragic chain of events depicted in Black Hawk Down). Minutes later, at Howard Air Force Base, he was formally placed under arrest by DEA agents and read his Miranda rights. The agents made him trade his uniform for a prisoner’s flight suit and escorted him aboard a C-130. Within two hours the man who had controlled a tropical paradise as the “Maximum Leader” was on the ground in the United States, heading to a Miami jail cell as Prisoner #41586. He was convicted of drug trafficking charges and sentenced to 40 years in prison. When his sentence officially ended in 2007, he was extradited to France to face murder charges.

Historical revisionism has been kind to many individuals targeted by U.S. strategic manhunts. Geronimo and Pancho Villa have been romanticized by Hollywood. Sandino and Che Guevara are icons to anti-American leftists throughout the world. Even Osama bin Laden is revered by a significant portion of the Islamic world despite the large number of Muslims killed in al Qaeda’s attacks. Despite the appealing image of a third world David battling the Goliath of the U.S. military, it is highly unlikely that history will be so kind to Noriega. Whereas most of America’s other antagonists had some admirable quality — whether it be sheer physical courage or commitment to some cause, however misguided — it is difficult to find any redeemable traits in Noriega. It is telling that Colin Powell, not normally a man given to hyperbole, recalled his meeting with the late dictator best by noting: “I found Noriega an unappealing man, with his pockmarked face, beady, darting eyes, and arrogant swagger. I immediately had the crawling sense that I was in the presence of evil.” Or, as James Baker put it more colloquially, Noriega “was a case of what we in Texas call ‘bad chili.’”

 

Benjamin Runkle is a former Defense Department and National Security Council official and the author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden. He is the Managing Editor of the Texas National Security Review, and is still waiting for Hollywood to call.

Image: U.S. Air Force