Americas

He was U.S. prisoner #41586. How Noriega landed in a Miami jail after invasion

From victory to defeat: Manuel Noriega
From victory to defeat: Manuel Noriega File

This is a look back at the arrest of Panama’s Manuel Noriega, who was booked into a Miami jail after the U.S. invasion of his country. This account was originally published in the Miami Herald on Jan. 5, 1990.

Manuel Antonio Noriega, last month the invincible leader of Panama, now a humbled defendant in Miami, stood before an American judge Thursday and was formally charged with being a narcotics racketeer.

Afterward, the nation's most prominent prisoner of the war on drugs was taken to his new residence: a jail cell at an undisclosed Miami location. The man who so recently fashioned himself as Panama's "Maximum Leader" now is known as federal prisoner No. 41586.

The ousted head of state, still wearing his military uniform and his military poise and discipline, appeared before U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler late Thursday afternoon but refused to enter a plea or acknowledge the court's right to try him.

Noriega is accused, among other things, of earning $4.6 million by conspiring with Colombia's vicious Medellin Cartel to ship cocaine through Panama to the streets of the United States.

"Gen. Noriega is here today under protest, " said attorney Frank Rubino.

As his client listened through headphones to a Spanish translation, Rubino listed a variety of reasons why Noriega would not recognize the court's jurisdiction: Noriega is the leader of a sovereign nation. He is a political prisoner. The U.S. invasion of Panama was illegal, as was Noriega's transfer to the United States.

When Rubino was through, Hoeveler said he would enter innocent pleas on Noriega's behalf and ordered him held in jail with no chance of release on bond pending a series of pre-trial hearings.

But first, a set of questions for the fallen foreign leader, a once-jaunty man still embellished by a general's five silver stars on his epaulets:

The judge: "Please state your name."

Noriega: "Manuel Antonio Noriega."

The judge: "Are you in good health today?"

Noriega: "Si."

The judge: "Have you taken any drugs or medication in the last 12 hours?"

Noriega, emphatically and in Spanish: "Absolutely not."

One year ago, Hoeveler rejected defense claims of immunity for Noriega. The judge said the State Department never recognized Noriega's political legitimacy.

Then, it was a theoretical argument. Now, the former leader of Panama is in a Miami jail, and he faces 165 years in prison and $1.1 million in fines if convicted on all 11 counts against him in the February 1988 indictment.

In all, it was an extraordinary end to an extraordinary series of events: Never before has a head of state been toppled by U.S. military action, harassed until he surrendered and then hauled before an American bar of justice.

The defense said the case could take nine months to prepare and six months to try. U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, who is personally prosecuting the case, said the trial would take only two months.

The charges allege that Noriega, 51, not only helped the Medellin Cartel ship cocaine to the U.S. but also allowed drug traffickers to launder money in Panama and ship drug-processing chemicals through the nation.

He also is accused of traveling to Havana so that Cuban President Fidel Castro could mediate a dispute between Noriega and the cartel, the world's largest cocaine-trafficking gang.

After years of defiance and days of diplomatic intrigue, Noriega surrendered late Wednesday to U.S. troops outside the Vatican Embassy in Panama City.

Said by Panamanian and U.S. officials to have murdered countless opponents, supported a mistress, abused drugs and practiced witchcraft, Noriega left behind a note for Pope John Paul II and received a souvenir Bible, according to a Vatican official.

Within hours, Noriega was whisked to Dade County and, eventually, to the federal courthouse in downtown Miami.

His perceived value as a prisoner was measured by the unusual security in place at the courthouse. All 96 federal marshals in South Florida were on alert, more were imported from elsewhere and many were posted in or near the building.

Police barricades blocked surrounding streets. SWAT teams were posted around the building. Sharpshooters maintained positions on nearby rooftops.

Panamanian and Cuban exiles, some carrying anti-Noriega signs, gathered outside the courthouse. "Noriega Asesino, " they chanted. Noriega, the assassin.

Rubino, one of several attorneys hired by Noriega, said during the 17-minute hearing that Noriega had no choice but to turn himself in.

"He was informed by the papal nuncio that the present government of Panama would revoke the diplomatic sanctuary of the nunciature . . ., " Rubino said. "To prevent the further loss of blood and loss of life -- especially the nuns and priests in the nunciature -- Gen. Noriega felt compelled to acquiesce."

In Washington, a senior Bush administration official confirmed that the Vatican Embassy had planned to order Noriega out by noon Thursday. That previously undisclosed ultimatum may have been the final straw that prompted the surrender, the official said.

The Vatican said it encouraged Noriega to leave, but no deadline had been fixed.

Before Noriega was brought into the courtroom, Rubino said the defendant wanted to waive his right to appear. Lehtinen objected. Hoeveler ordered Noriega into Courtroom No. 9.

"This is not a case I want to go by waivers, " Hoeveler said.

Noriega, blank-faced, wearing military brown pants and a beige short-sleeved shirt, walked in and sat next to his other attorney, Steven Kollin.

Hoeveler told Noriega to stand and answer the routine questions. The defendant quickly stood up rigidly and clicked his heels. The military man was at attention.

Afterward, Rubino told reporters that he did not know where his client was being held, but that U.S. marshals promised to deliver him within an hour's notice. He said Noriega was tired, but strong and confident.

In Panama, meanwhile, U.S. troops prepared for an accelerated withdrawal that could bring many of the remaining 25,000 soldiers home within a few weeks. Army Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was sent to Panama to work on the timetable.

Noriega's wife and three children remained holed up in the Cuban Embassy in Panama City, possibly waiting for safe-conduct passes.

In Washington, congressional reaction was almost unanimously favorable.

Said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas: "Noriega will finally have his day in court, which is more than he gave the people of Panama."

The international community generally welcomed the development, but Gennady Gerasimov, spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry, questioned the propriety and legality of the United States' actions.

"No state has the right to take the law into its own hands, " Gerasimov said in Moscow. "That's basically lynch law."

Noriega's fate was sealed on Dec. 20, when President Bush launched a full-bore invasion of Panama to force from power and arrest the man who had survived several coup attempts and whose rubber-stamp legislature said Panama was at war with the United States.

The force of American soldiers flushed Noriega from his headquarters, eventually quelled resistance from his Panama Defense Forces and installed Guillermo Endara as president. Endara was the apparent winner of a May 7 election that was nullified by Noriega.

By official count, 23 American soldiers and three American civilians were killed in the fighting. More than 300 American troops were wounded. At least 290 Panamanian soldiers and about 300 civilians were killed.

Meanwhile, the search persisted for Noriega, who finally found Christmas Eve sanctuary at the Vatican embassy. The diplomatic wrangling began, as did a relentless American campaign of psychological pressure.

By the end, Noriega was said to be a lonely, broken man. On Wednesday, about 20,000 Panamanians descended on the embassy, shouting "No More!" and "Assassin!" Within hours, Noriega caved in.

Noriega's only conditions for surrender, according to U.S. officials: assurances of a fair trial, that he would not face the death penalty, that he could wear his uniform.

And then, it was a done deal.

"I will pray for you every day, " the Rev. Jabier Villanueva told the ousted dictator as they walked to the black iron gates of the Vatican Embassy.

"Gracias, " answered Noriega, according to Villanueva.

Noriega reportedly served for years as a CIA and Drug Enforcement Administration informant. He is expected to make broad demands for intelligence files in an attempt to embarrass Bush, a former CIA director, and show that the United States authorized or knew about his activities.

U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said Noriega's supposed past dealings with the CIA would not hamper the prosecution.

"Suffice it to say that we're not concerned that anything he does raise by way of defense will effectively bar prosecution . . ." Thornburgh said. "We're confident we can successfully prosecute these charges."

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