The Biggest Drug Bust in History
It took an invasion by the U.S. to take out the bloody dictator Manuel Noriega in what was likely the most expensive and largest drug bust in history.
When Manuel Noriega was the most powerful and most feared man in Panama some 30 years ago—the all-knowing spy chief positioned at the violent and lucrative nexus of local corruption, CIA covert ops, and Colombia’s cocaine trade—he gave few interviews and said little when he did. But the setting for these encounters was extraordinary. One had the sense of looking inside his head.
Typically, he would send a couple of his men to the reporter’s hotel. In my case, they arrived in a late-model BMW and asked me to sit in the back, which I did, of course. But I wasn’t sure where to put my feet since their submachine guns were on the floor, making the ride to the headquarters of the Panamanian National Guard awkward and uncomfortable.
We drove into the underground garage, and from there I was escorted to Noriega’s subterranean office. The doors were made of what looked like bulletproof glass. And then there was a little waiting room with a peculiar collection of art works: Little toy toads—carved or stuffed or made of china—were arrayed on shelves. Toad or “sapo,” is Panamanian argot for an informer, a snitch, a rat. And there were paintings on the walls as well. Several were of children with big eyes, some of them welling with tears.
After a few minutes, I was escorted into Col. Noriega’s office, but he was not there yet. In a position of honor above his desk he had what looked like a chrome-plated Kalashnikov. Nearby was a picture of Noriega with the late Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan. (One of Noriega’s close advisers was Mike Harari, the notorious Israeli Mossad agent who murdered the wrong man in Norway when hunting down the people behind the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre.)
I studied my notes and my questions. Some considerable time passed, and Noriega’s pleasantly voluptuous secretary came into the office to dust. Perhaps she wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting too nosey in there by myself.
She had her hair in rollers. It wasn’t unusual for women in Panama in those days to keep their hair up like that even on the street, as if there were no hope of controlling it otherwise in the country’s heat and humidity. Indeed, there was, generally, an amazing sense of rot—of decadence, libertinage, and liberation—that even Graham Greene could not quite capture in his nonfiction novel from the late 1970s, Getting to Know the General. But as I looked at my notebook and the floor, I caught a tiny glimpse of it.
Panama was way ahead of the United States when it came to the painting of nails—yin and yang symbols and what have you. The secretary was wearing flip-flops, and as she dusted around me, I could not take my eyes off her toes. Each was painted very delicately with red spiderwebs.
Finally, Noriega arrived, and as a bit of small talk I asked about the chrome-plated AK-47. Who gave it to him? “A trophy of war,” he said, and laughed, but wouldn’t explain further. Instead, he wanted to talk about the social conditions of his country, which I took as an indication of the political ambitions he denied having. “Social injustices,” he told me in his subterranean office, “are like a damp corner where they may grow poisonous mushrooms, and mold, and evil odors.”
Manuel Noriega, now 83 years old, had brain surgery recently and is in a coma from which he may never recover. He long ago passed into history. But when I was covering Central America for The Washington Post in the early 1980s, and watching his rise to power, he seemed like one of those terribly transparent tyrants whose flirtations with insanity are right there on the surface for anyone to observe who is willing to see them.
For many years, Gen. Omar Torrijos had been Panama’s strongman. He was handsome and charismatic. He played footsie with Fidel Castro and regional revolutionaries, but he also negotiated the return of Panamanian sovereignty over the Panama Canal after protracted talks with the U.S. administration of Jimmy Carter.
It was Torrijos who gave Noriega the critical position of intelligence chief and liaison with all the dark corners of the dictatorship. He probably assumed that this short, stocky man of humble origins whose face was so deeply scarred by acne that his enemies called him “La Piña,” The Pineapple, would prefer to remain in the shadows.
But in August 1981, Torrijos died in a plane crash—“bad weather,” it was said. And Noriega began to get publicly ambitious, giving interviews to the likes of me in 1982. Then, less than a year after Torrijos died, the civilian president he’d put in place as his successor, Aristides Royo, suddenly resigned, reportedly because of a sore throat.
I called Noriega and told him I could not credibly write that the president of Panama was quitting because of a minor health issue. So, Noriega listened for a moment, then said on background, “OK. One could say this is a constitutional coup à la panameña.” He really didn’t care what we called it. He also said newspapers were being shut down to “avoid insults” and “restore social morality” while a purge would be carried out to clean up the government. But he promised that after a week, when “everything is established in order,” then “a total democracy” would be put in place.
No such thing happened, of course. In short order, Noriega was the undisputed new strongman of Panama.
The Central American political landscape had grown incredibly complicated at that point. The Sandinistas, with popular support, Cuban backing, and eventual Carter administration acquiescence, had taken power in Nicaragua in 1979. Revolution was spreading to El Salvador and Guatemala. U.S. President Ronald Reagan, inaugurated in 1981, vowed to roll back the leftist tide.
Panama, with its established U.S. military presence, played an increasingly important role as a logistics hub for the Pentagon and the CIA. And Noriega positioned himself as a supporter of the “Contras” fighting to overthrow the Sandinistas. But in the shifting political landscape, when some of the Sandinistas turned on their old comrades, there was one compañero-turned-Contra that Noriega particularly disliked.
One of the swashbuckling figures who fought alongside the Sandinistas in the 1970s then joined their opposition in the 1980s was a handsome Panamanian doctor named Hugo Spadafora. In 1985, Noriega’s men grabbed him as he crossed from Costa Rica into Panama and tortured him with savagery rarely seen even among the savage militaries of Central America. Eventually they sawed his head off with a butcher knife and stuffed his body in a mail bag.
The head was never recovered.
No one doubted who was responsible. Spadafora had publicly denounced Noriega’s dictatorship and, even more to the point, his massive collusion with the Colombian drug cartels.
In the mid-1980s, the market for cocaine, especially crack cocaine, had exploded in the United States, fueling a huge crime wave in American cities. Panama offered a perfect transshipment point for the drugs going north, while its wide-open banking sector laundered the billions of dollars headed south, and Noriega oversaw all those operations.
By the late 1980s, Washington wanted to wash its hands of Noriega, but he was getting ever more deeply dug in, styling himself a dictator beloved by his people—whom he encouraged to march in the streets waving machetes.
The George H.W. Bush administration hoped to have him overthrown, but a coup attempt in late 1989 failed miserably. So a series of prods and provocations began until, finally, a car carrying four U.S. soldiers supposedly on their way from their base to a dinner in Panama City was shot up at a checkpoint and one of them died. Days later, Bush ordered the invasion that began began on Dec. 20, 1989 and lasted through the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Depending on how you look at it, “Operation Just Cause” was one of the shortest wars, or one of the costliest drug busts, in U.S. history. Some 27,000 American troops intervened in Panama, 23 of them died, and hundreds of Panamanians were killed. The Panamanian National Guard Headquarters where I had met Noriega years before was virtually leveled. For a time, Noriega hid out in the residence of the papal nuncio, the Vatican ambassador, and the Americans famously used psychological operations—relentless, blaring rock music—to try to force him out.
Finally, Noriega surrendered, and was flown to the United States to be put on trial. But the witnesses arrayed against him, including Carlos Lehder, co-founder of the Medellín Cartel, were almost as sleazy as he was. Charles Schumer, then a congressman from New York, prepared a critical report on the case that dubbed the state’s witnesses “the Felonius 15,” according to Newsweek magazine’s story on the 1992 verdict. Noriega lawyer Frank Rubino joked that the prosecution had cut so many deals with criminals-turned-witnesses the trial “is going to relieve prison crowding.”
But the Feds got their man. Convicted in April 1992, Noriega has been imprisoned ever since: in the United States for almost 20 years, then sentenced to seven years in prison in France on money laundering charges in 2010, before being shipped back to Panama in 2011 to serve out the remainder of his sentence.
Earlier this month Noriega underwent surgery to remove a benign brain tumor, but suffered a severe brain hemorrhage, which is why he was put into an induced coma. Even if he recovers, it is doubtful he will ever live to see the world outside a prison cell or a hospital room. Having spent so much of his life in the shadows, he is now condemned to die in them.