Noriega worked with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from the late 1950s to the 1980s, and was on the CIA payroll for much of this time, although the relationship had not become contractual until 1967. By the late 1980s, relations had turned extremely tense between Noriega and the United States government, due to allegations that he was spying for Cuba under Fidel Castro. In 1989 the general was overthrown and captured during Operation Nifty Package, as part of the United States invasion of Panama. He was detained as a prisoner of war, and later taken to the United States. In 1992 he was convicted under federal charges of cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering in Miami, Florida. Sentenced to 40 years in prison (later reduced to 30 years), Noriega is held at the Federal Correctional Institution, Miami, Florida (FCI Miami).
In December 2004, Noriega was briefly hospitalized after suffering a minor stroke. Voice of America (VOA) reported that Frank Rubino, Noriega's attorney, said Noriega was due to be released from prison on September 9, 2007. In August 2007, a federal judge approved a request from the French government to extradite Noriega from the United States to France after his release. Noriega is facing an additional 10 years in a French prison, having been convicted in absentia for money laundering. Noriega has also received a long jail term in absentia in Panama for murder and human rights abuses.
There is currently a legal battle being waged to decide the fate of the deposed dictator. Noriega appealed his extradition to France because he claims that country will not honor his legal status as a prisoner of war.
Omar Torrijos died in a plane accident in 1981. Colonel Roberto Díaz, a former associate of Noriega, claimed that the actual cause for the accident was a bomb and that Noriega was behind the incident.
Torrijos was succeeded by Colonel Florencio Flores. One year later, Flores was succeeded by Rubén Darío Paredes, and Noriega became chief of staff. Paredes resigned to run for the presidency, ceding his post as commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces (as the Guard had been renamed) to Noriega. The two men made a deal in which Paredes would run as the Democratic Revolutionary Party's candidate for president. However, Noriega reneged on the deal.
The U.S. saw Noriega as a double agent (his State Department nickname was "rent-a-colonel") and believed that he gave information not only to the U.S. and U.S. allies Taiwan and Israel, but also to communist Cuba. He also sold weapons to the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the late 1970s.
In October 1984, Noriega allowed the first presidential elections in 16 years. When the initial results showed former president Arnulfo Arias on his way to a landslide victory, Noriega halted the count. After brazenly manipulating the results, the government announced that the PRD's candidate, Nicolás Ardito Barletta, had won by a slim margin of 1,713 votes. Independent estimates suggested that Arias would have won by as many as 50,000 votes had the election been conducted fairly. Barletta, who later became known as "Fraudito", was a former student of United States Secretary of State George Schultz at the University of Chicago, home of the Chicago Boys (los muchachos de Chicago).
About this time, Hugo Spadafora, a vocal critic of Noriega who had been living abroad, accused Noriega of having connections to drug trafficking and announced his intent to return to Panama to oppose him. He was seized from a bus by a death squad at the Costa Rican border. Later, his decapitated body was found, showing signs of extreme torture, wrapped in a U.S. Postal Service mailing bag. His family and other groups called for an investigation into his murder, but Noriega stonewalled any attempts at an investigation. Noriega was in Paris at the time the murder took place, alleged by some to have been at the direction of his Chiriquí Province commander, Luis Córdoba.
In the book In the Time of the Tyrants, R.M. Koster relates a conversation captured on wiretap between Noriega (in Paris) and Cordoba:
President Barletta was visiting New York City at the time. A reporter asked him about the Spadafora matter, and he promised an investigation. Upon his return to Panama, he was summoned to FDP headquarters and told to resign. He was replaced by First Vice President Eric Arturo Delvalle. As a friend and former student of George Schultz, Barletta had been considered "sacrosanct" by the United States, and his dismissal signaled a marked downturn in the relations between the U.S. and Noriega.
Díaz Herrera, a former member of Noriega's inner circle, told Panama's main opposition newspaper, La Prensa, that Noriega was behind Spadafora's murder, many other killings and disappearances as well. This resulted in an immediate outcry from the public and the formation of the "Civic Crusade". Noriega claims that the Civic Crusade was the handiwork of U.S. Embassy chargé d'affaires John Maisto, who arranged for Civic Crusade leaders to travel to the Philippines to learn the tactics of the U.S.-supported movement to overthrow Ferdinand Marcos. Supporters of Noriega referred to the Civic Crusade as a creature of the rabiblancos or "white-tails", the wealthy elite of European extraction that dominated Panamanian commerce and that had dominated Panamanian politics before the advent of Torrijos. Noriega, like Torrijos, was dark-skinned and claimed to represent the majority population who were poor and of mixed Spanish Amerindian and African heritage. Noriega supporters mocked the demonstrations of the Civic Crusade as "the protest of the Mercedes Benz", deriding the wealthy ladies for banging on teflon-coated pots and pans (unlike the cruder and louder pots and pans traditionally banged by the poor in South American protests), or sending their maids to protest for them. The U.S. press, however, covered these demonstrations with great sympathy. Many rallies were held, with the use of white cloths as the symbol of the opposition. Noriega was always one step ahead of them however, having informants within their groups notify his police in advance and routinely rounded up leaders and organizers the night before rallies. All this peaceful rallies were brutally dispersed by Noriega's army and paramilitary forces known as the Dignity Battalions. Many people were beaten severely, incarcerated, and killed during this manifestations. Meanwhile he arranged rallies of his own, often under threat (for example, taxi drivers were told they had to attend a rally in support of Noriega or lose their licenses).
Nonetheless, he retained U.S. support until February 5, 1988, when the Drug Enforcement Administration had him indicted on federal drug charges relating to his activities before 1984. On February 25, Delvalle issued a decree declaring that Noriega was relieved of his duties. Noriega ignored the decree, but instead instructed the National Assembly, dominated by the PRD, to remove Delvalle from office. Delvalle was forced to flee the country for his life. Noriega claims that on March 18, 1988, he met with U.S. State Department officials William Walker and Michael Kozak, who offered him $2 million to go into exile in Spain. According to Noriega, he refused the offer. In early 1988, he also attempted to buy thousands of Browning 9mm pistols from U.S. businessman and arms trader Leo Wanta.
Senator John Kerry's 1988 subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics and international operations concluded that "the saga of Panama's General Manuel Antonio Noriega represents one of the most serious foreign policy failures for the United States. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, Noriega was able to manipulate U.S. policy toward his country, while skillfully accumulating near-absolute power in Panama. It is clear that each U.S. government agency which had a relationship with Noriega turned a blind eye to his corruption and drug dealing, even as he was emerging as a key player on behalf of the Medellín Cartel (a member of which was notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar)." Manuel Noriega was allowed to establish "the hemisphere's first 'narcokleptocracy'".
According to Koster, the opposition alliance knew that Noriega planned to rig the count, but had no way of proving it. They found a way through a loophole in Panamanian election law. The alliance, with the support of the Roman Catholic Church, set up a count based directly on results at the country's 4,000 election precincts before the results were sent to district centers. Noriega's lackeys swapped fake tally sheets for the real ones and took those to the district centers — but by this time the opposition's more accurate count was already out. It showed Endara winning in a landslide even more massive than 1984, beating Duque by a 3-to-1 margin. Noriega had every intention of declaring Duque the winner regardless of the actual results. However, Duque knew he had been badly defeated and refused to go along.
Rather than display the results, Noriega voided the election, claiming "foreign interference" made it impossible to assure the results were valid — a claim that few believed. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, there as an observer, denounced Noriega, saying the election had been "stolen," as did Bishop Marcos McGrath.
The next day, Endara, Arias Calderón and Ford rolled through the old part of the capital in a triumphant motorcade, only to be intercepted by a detachment of Noriega's paramilitary Dignity Battalions. Arias Calderón was protected by a couple of troops, but Endara and Ford were badly beaten. Images of Ford running to safety with his shirt covered in blood were broadcast around the world. This image brought worldwide attention to Noriega's regime. When the 1984-89 presidential term expired, Noriega named a longtime associate, Francisco Rodríguez, as acting president. The United States, however, recognized Endara as the new president.
The matter came to a head in December 1989: a U.S. Marine, returning from a restaurant in Panama City, was stopped and harassed to the point where he panicked and attempted to flee, and he was shot and killed.
In response, U.S. President George H.W. Bush launched an invasion of Panama. Losses on the U.S. side were 23 troops, plus three civilian casualties. The U.S. claimed Panamanian losses were "several hundred" though exact statistics remain disputed, and some Latin American and other international sources have estimated the civilian death toll may have been as high as 3,000 to 5,000. The U.N. put the death toll at 500. The conflict also caused some considerable internal displacement, with 20,000 to 30,000 having been rendered homeless. Probably the majority of those resulted from a fire that devastated much of a poor area of Panama City that surrounded the Comandancia, a fortified headquarters that was shelled.
The Vatican complained to President Bush because of this and U.S. troops stopped the noise. After a demonstration a few days later by thousands of Panamanians demanding he stand trial for human rights violations, Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990.
The prosecution presented a case that has been criticized by numerous observers. The prosecution's case was completely reworked several times because problems developed with the witnesses, whose stories contradicted one another. The United States Attorney negotiated deals with 26 different drug felons, including Carlos Lehder, who were given leniency, cash payments, and allowed to keep their drug earnings in return for testimony against Noriega. Several of these witnesses had been arrested by Noriega for drug trafficking in Panama. Some witnesses later recanted their testimony, and agents of the CIA, Drug Enforcement Administration, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Israeli Mossad, who were knowledgeable about Central American drug trafficking, have publicly charged that accusations were embellished. Noriega was found guilty and sentenced on September 16, 1992, to 40 years in prison for drug and racketeering violations. His sentence was reduced to 30 years in 1999.
Under Article 85 of the Third Geneva Convention, Noriega is still considered a prisoner of war, despite his conviction for acts committed prior to his capture by the "detaining power" (the United States). This status has meant that he has his own prison cell furnished with electronics, which some have described as the "Presidential suite.
In 1999, the Panamanian government sought the extradition of Noriega to face murder charges in Panama because he had been found guilty in absentia in 1995 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Apparently, he may be able to serve his sentence under house arrest due to his age. France has also requested the extradition of Noriega after he was convicted of money laundering in 1999. On August 24, 2007, a Judge in Miami ruled Manuel Noriega could be extradited to France to serve a 10 year sentence for money laundering. Noriega appealed his extradition because he claims France will not honor his legal status as a prisoner of war.
It is thought Noriega will get preferential treatment by the Panamanian government; even a presidential pardon. The current president of Panama is Martin Torrijos, son of Noriega's mentor and friend Omar Torrijos.
On May 15-16, 1990, Clift Brannon, a former attorney-turned-preacher, and a Spanish interpreter, Rudy Hernandez, were allowed to visit Noriega for a total of six hours in the Metropolitan Correctional Center of Dade County, Florida. Following their visit, Noriega wrote Brannon as follows:
On completing the spiritual sessions that you as a messenger of the Word of God brought to my heart, even to my area of confinement as Prisoner of War of the United States, I feel the necessity of adding something more to what I was able to say to you as we parted. The evening sessions of May 15 and 16 with you and Rudy Hernandez along with the Christian explanation and guidance were for me the first day of a dream, a revelation. I can tell you with great strength and inspiration that receiving our Lord Jesus Christ as Savior guided by you, was an emotional event. The hours flew by without my being aware. I could have desired that they continue forever, but there was no time nor space. Thank you for your time. Thank you for your human warmth, for your constant and permanent spiritual strength brought to bear on my mind and soul.
With great affection.
Manuel A. Noriega
While still pending trial, his attorney confirmed Noriega's conversion in an interview on March 20, 1991.