Ex-Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega is back in his homeland. But instead of leading the country, he’s sitting in prison.
Noriega took power in 1983 and lead the country for six years, funding his regime in part with drug money. And his feared death squads crushed opponents.
At the same time, Noriega was a CIA informant.
A US military invasion toppled the dictator in 1989, and he’s been tucked away in various prisons ever since. France extradited the 77-year-old Noriega to Panama earlier this month, to serve 60 years and stand trial for his alleged atrocities.
Panamanians are divided over what Noreiga’s return means for their country.
Carmenza Spadafora and her sisters thumbed through faded photos from the 1970″s and 80″s showing a dashing young doctor in guerrilla fatigues. It’s their brother, Hugo Spadafora.
“Exactly the same day that we knew that the body they found decapitated was Hugo’s, my father went to the press and he immediately accused Noriega of being responsible for the killing and beheading of my brother,” said Carmenza Spadafora.
Hugo was a former government minister-turned-guerrilla. He stood up to Manuel Noriega, publicly accusing him of murder and drug trafficking. Hugo was tortured and killed in 1985. His head was never found.
Carmenza Spadafora said Panamanians wanted to turn the page and move on after the US invasion that booted Noriega from power in 1989.
“Unfortunately, this attitude made all the governments that came after Noriega forget their obligation of teaching the history of what had happened to the new generations,” she said.
The Spadafora family is fighting to restart investigations into the Noriega regime’s alleged atrocities that killed at least 112 people. And that sends shivers through the political elite. Many of them once supported Noriega.
But others see the ex-dictator’s return and collectively shrug their shoulders.
Rafael Perez sits over a bowl of soup at a packed upscale restaurant in a new shopping mall. It’s in the former Canal Zone where a US military base once stood.
Perez covered Panama’s reconstruction period as a journalist before landing a job in President Ricardo Martinelli’s press department. He thinks Panamanians today would pay more attention to Noriega if it weren’t for the country’s booming economy.
“Noriega isn’t on the average Panamanian’s daily agenda. Panamanians have other things to worry about today, like getting a good education for their kids,” Perez said. “There has been economic growth, but there’s also been an increase in the cost of living. People have to take care of these challenges.”
This is a completely different county from the one Noriega bullied. The Panama Canal came under Panamanian control and is now being expanded. Foreign tourism has flourished, and the government has successfully managed four democratic elections.
The economy grew by 10 and a half percent in 2011, though corruption, drug trafficking, poverty and money laundering persist.
Delmiro Quiroga is a writer and actor for La Cascara. It’s a satirical TV show popular with young Panamanians.
Out on the rooftop of the show’s studio, Quiroga said the common dialogue surrounding Noriega is heavily focused on the US invasion to dislodge him.
“They don’t talk about what came before the invasion, about who provoked the Americans, and who tortured civilians,” he said. “The murders and the rapes. Nobody talks about it. The young people don’t know about it.”
Meanwhile, Carmenza Spadafora said there have been few official attempts to recognize the victims’ families or incorporate the Noriega years into the school curriculum.
“The victims of the families have approached the government to ask them for reparations — with museums, or even to put the history in the textbooks for schools. And all the doors have been closed and shut in front of the faces of the victims,” Spadafora said.
There are no official museums in Panama to commemorate the victims of the Noriega regime.