Introduction: Manuel Noriega (02:22)
This episode of “The Dictator’s Playbook” analyzes the regime of Panama’s Manuel Noriega. The United States sent 20,000 troops to Panama City to detain the dictator on Dec. 20, 1989. What did he do to provoke invasion by the world’s most powerful nation?
Anti-American Sentiment (05:31)
Noriega was born in Panama City in 1934 and orphaned at age 5. He faced discrimination because of his creole heritage. Like many Panamanian students in the 1950s, he was swept up in of anti-American sentiment stemming from U.S. ownership of the Panama Canal.
Military Path to Power (06:07)
Noriega joined the National Guard where he was mentored by Commander Omar Torrijos. He received training in blackmail, coercion, torture, and execution at the School of the Americas. He played a key role when Torrijos led a military coup against President Arnulfo Arias in 1968.
Controlling Information (06:28)
Noriega was promoted to chief of military intelligence. He was rumored to be involved in several disappearances, including the kidnapping of priest and activist Hector Gallegos. He secretly worked as a paid informant for the Central Intelligence Agency, but also spied on the Americans for Cuba.
Rigged Election (05:48)
Torrijos signed a historic treaty with the President Jimmy Carter ensuring Panama would gain control of the Panama Canal. He promised to transition to a democracy, but died on July 31, 1981. Noriega intervened in the 1984 election to install a puppet president, Nicolás Ardito Barletta.
Amassing Wealth (07:12)
Noriega took advantage of his position to profit from the illegal drug trade, arms smuggling, and money laundering. He did business with Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel and helped arm Contra rebels for President Ronald Reagan’s administration. He became the wealthiest man in Panama.
Controlling the Press (04:49)
Noriega critic Hugo Spadafora was abducted, tortured and beheaded in September 1985. The public was outraged, and Noriega cracked down on the Panamanian media for its coverage. A "New York Times" expose that claimed the U.S. had turned a blind eye to Noriega’s crimes was an embarrassment for the Reagan Administration.
Noriega Loses Control (03:48)
Noriega was able to pacify the Americans by helping with Operation Pisces, a sting that resulted in the indictment of Escobar. Col. Roberto Diaz implicated Noriega in rigging the 1984 presidential election, the Spadafora assassination, and the death of Torrijos, sparking a wave of protests.
Prelude to Invasion (04:30)
The U.S. called for Noriega to step down, but he remained defiant. Noriega rigged the 1989 presidential election, leading to widespread rioting. Noriega’s paramilitary group, the Dignity Batallions, cracked down violently, and opposition candidate Guillermo “Billy” Ford was beaten severely. Pressure mounted for President George H.W. Bush to act.
Invasion of Panama (06:41)
Tensions boiled over on Dec. 16, 1989 after a Panamanian officer shot and killed an American marine. The U.S. invaded Panama days later, and Noriega went into hiding without issuing any military orders. Noriega surrendered on Jan. 3, 1990 and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. He died in 2017.
Credits: Manuel Noriega (00:32)
Credits: Manuel Noriega
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