By Tomáš Tengely-Evans
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Manuel Noriega—the murderous stooge the US betrayed in Panama

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Issue 2557
Manuel Noriega being bundled onto a US military plane in 1990
Manuel Noriega being bundled onto a US military plane in 1990 (Pic: United States Air Force)

Colonel Manuel Noriega was a dictator and drug-runner.

That’s what every pundit agreed when the former Panamanian ruler died last week. But most skirted around the fact that Noriega was a bought and paid-for stooge of US imperialism throughout his brutal reign.

Noriega was never president of Panama, which maintained a sham democracy after a coup in 1968. But as the self-styled “Maximum Leader of National Liberation”, he was the de facto ruler from 1983 to 1989.

His involvement with the US began in the 1950s, when he was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

A few years later he went to the US Army’s School of the Americas to learn about “anti-communist counter-insurgency”, a euphemism for murder and torture. It was a training camp for Latin America’s dictators and generals.

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Panama was born out of US imperialism and money-laundering.

The US bullied Colombia into giving Panama “independence” in 1903. It then built the Panama Canal, a key shipping route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and grabbed the land around it as a colony.

Top investment bank JP Morgan and Co wrote the laws that made Panama into the corporate tax haven it is today.

By 1979 the US was jointly administering the Panama Canal Zone with the country’s government. The US needed someone who would promote its interests—Noriega was that man.

Within a few years Noriega and Panama had taken on a new importance as part of a secret war against the left wing Sandinista movement in Nicaragua.

US Congress had banned funding the Contras, a right wing paramilitary in Nicaragua. But president Ronald Reagan and CIA chief George Bush Snr used Noriega’s drug running network to smuggle arms and money to the Contras.


In exchange for Noriega’s loyal service, Bush stuffed his pockets and protected him from US drug enforcement.

Noriega was part of a much bigger secret operation, known as the “Iran-Contra Affair”.

In 1985 US colonel Oliver North secretly sold arms to the Iran’s regime to bankroll the Contras. The operation grew into selling the Colombian Medellin drug cartel’s cocaine to the US to fund more weapons.

Panama became a base for laundering money for US secret operations across Latin America.

But discontent was growing within Panama, so Noriega made hollow noises against US domination. The US couldn’t tolerate an unreliable ally, so new president Bush Snr sent in a 24,000 troops to topple his former drug-running partner.

An internal US Army memo claimed that some 1,000 people were killed. Other estimates put the numbers of people killed in the invasion and aftermath as high as 3,500.

Afterwards Bush proclaimed that “freedom had been restored”—in fact, repression was ramped up. Trade unionists, socialists and other opposition figures were rounded up and interrogated in detention centres.

Noriega was gone, but the imperialism and money-laundering remained.

A US customs official summed up US imperialism and Noriega’s legacy. Panama, he wrote, is “filled with dishonest lawyers, dishonest bankers, and dishonest companies registered there so that they can deposit dirty money into their dishonest banks.”

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