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Bob McMillanAn Opinion

By Bob McMillan
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Manuel Noriega Returns to Panama

It has been 22 years since the United States forces took Manuel Noriega out of power in Panama. He had been a ruthless dictator from 1983 to 1989. At the same time, it can truly be said that he was a “good cap” who went “bad.” Let me explain.

During the “Cold War” he was on our side in terms of dealing with Castro in Cuba and even in support of the Contras in Nicaragua. But, he went bad through corruption and drug deals.

In 1992, after he was taken out by U.S. forces, Noriega was brought to the United States and tried for drug deals in a Florida Federal Court. He was found guilty and sentenced to jail for his crimes.

Then, while still in jail, Noriega was tried in absentia by a French court and found guilty. That was in 1999. His drug deals in France found his bank accounts with over $3 million, and he owned three high end apartments in Paris.

On the completion of his jail term in the United States, he wanted to return to Panama. That was denied because the French wanted to retry him on his charges where he had already been convicted. In April of 2010, he was sent from the United States to France.

After a trial, he was sentenced in July of 2010 to serve seven years for money laundering and had to pay a fine of $2.9 million to France.

But, the story of Manuel Noriega was not over. He still wanted to return to Panama even though he had been convicted, in absentia, of two murders. After a long legal process in France and with the approval of the United States, he was extradited in December 2011 to Panama.

Before getting into the details about his return to Panama, there is one footnote about correspondence I had with him, after his conviction in the United States.

After reviewing the transcripts of Noriega’s conviction in the United States, I could not help but question his attorney’s allegations that Manual Noriega’s money was not from drug deals. The attorney stated in court that the money came from Japanese real estate interests wanting greater influence over the Panama Canal. If you remember, back in the late 1980s Japan’s economy was booming. In fact, Japanese real estate interests owned Rockefeller Center in the heart of Manhattan.

I wrote to Noriega in prison and asked him about his lawyer’s allegations. A few weeks after I wrote, a handwritten letter came to me from Noriega. Interestingly, he dodged the question, saying he did not understand what I had asked.

On Sunday, December 11, 2011, Noriega was sent back to Panama and placed in jail. His imprisonment will be appealed since he is over 70 years of age, and based on Panama law, he probably has the right to serve his term as a prisoner in his home.

Overall, his reception in Panama was quite calm. Clearly the days of Noriega, as an irritant in Panama, are over. Hopefully this means that Panama will continue its current 22 years of democracy and our enlarged Panama Canal.

Robert McMillan Website: www.bobmcmillan.net