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Getting to Sack the General

The most publicized event of the period was of course the signing of two treaties with the United States on September 7, 1977. The Panama Canal Treaty turns over control of the canal to the Panamanians on December 31, 1999. A second treaty guarantees the neutrality of the canal and permits the United States to act unilaterally to defend the canal in perpetuity. At the same time the United States retains the right to station forces and keep bases in Panama until the year 2000. The treaties give the United States no right to interfere in the internal affairs of Panama. While some Panamanians objected to the terms of the treaties at the time, the willingness of the United States to gradually turn over the Canal Zone to Panamanian sovereignty has generally defused the anti-Americanism that had erupted in riots in 1964 over the American presence there.

Torrijos promised to give up his military dictatorship and restore democracy to Panama. He told President Carter he was committed to that goal when the treaties were signed, and “he made similar commitments to the then Majority Leader Senator Robert Byrd and the then Minority Leader Senator Howard Baker.”2 And Torrijos seemed to be sincere. Laws restricting freedom of the press and of assembly were repealed; the right to trial in all criminal cases was permitted; political parties were allowed to organize and become active. In 1978, the newly elected National Assembly chose Arístides Royo, a technocrat who helped negotiate the Panama treaties, to serve as president for a six-year term, while Torrijos remained commander of the National Guard, still the real power in Panama.


When Torrijos died in July 1981, the country was thrown into political turmoil. The following year, President Royo was overthrown by the National Guard, and during the next two years the principal military leaders installed no fewer than three powerless presidents while plotting to share power among themselves. Colonel Rubén Darío Paredes took over as head of the National Guard. Next in command was Colonel Noriega, head of military intelligence. As the story was told to me, in 1982 a deal was struck between Paredes, Noriega, and Lieutenant Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera, the third most powerful officer in the National Guard. Paredes was to step down as commander of the National Guard and run for president in May 1984. Noriega would take over the National Guard. Then, once Paredes finished his term, Noriega would resign and run for the presidency, leaving Díaz Herrera as commander of the Guard. Noriega betrayed this agreement, however, and in 1984 refused to support Paredes, who lost the election by a large margin. Later Noriega also betrayed Díaz Herrera, setting off the sequence of events that led to the present crisis.

Still, the 1984 elections did not go as Noriega planned. Arnulfo Arias won again; but the military leaders refused to let him take office and declared that Nicolás Ardito Barletta was president. At this point, Noriega seemed in full control. Nor were US officials concerned with Latin Americans unhappy that Arias had been deprived of his election triumph. Barletta seemed to them a capable technocrat who might successfully deal with the growing debt crisis. The Panama Defense Forces (PDF), as the National Guard was now named, was growing in strength. Under Law 20, passed in 1983, the PDF took over almost all aspects of Panamanian public life, including the immigration department, the civil aeronautics administration, the railroads, the traffic department, and even the passport bureau. Under Noriega’s command, the defense forces also received more than $32 million in US military aid, which made it possible for Noriega to expand and modernize the force from about ten thousand to more than sixteen thousand in just about four years.3

In September 1985, however, Hugo Spadafora, a fierce critic of Noriega, was brutally murdered. Spadafora was a doctor, a vice-minister of health under Torrijos, and a romantic revolutionary. He had worked on the side of the rebels fighting against the Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau in the 1970s. Later, he fought with the Sandinista guerrillas against the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, and then, disillusioned with the Sandinistas, joined the anti-Sandinista rebels, the contras. On September 13, 1985, Dr. Spadafora, who had been living in San José, Costa Rica, crossed the border into Panama in a taxi, then boarded a bus for the provincial capital of Chiriquí. According to his brother Winston, Dr. Spadafora had spoken with agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and presented evidence that General Noriega was heavily involved in selling drugs, chiefly cocaine, and in transporting them to the US. I was told that he may even have had the evidence with him when he was taken off the bus. An agent of the PDF accompanied him. That evening, witnesses saw cars of the kind used in the PDF near Chiriquí. The next day, the decapitated corpse of Dr. Spadafora was found across the border in Costa Rica. According to the autopsy, he had been tortured and then beheaded.4

The violence of the murder shocked Panamanians, yet it might have had little effect if President Barletta had not decided to appoint an independent commission to investigate the murder. When news of this reached Noriega, he summoned Barletta, who had just returned from New York, where he was visiting the United Nations. Barletta told me that Noriega kept him in PDF headquarters for fourteen hours, insisting that if Barletta continued to demand an inquiry into Spadafora’s death, he must resign. Barletta finally gave in. The vice-president, Eric Arturo Delvalle, who was known mainly as one of Noriega’s men, took over.

The next threat to Noriega’s fortunes came on June 1, 1987, when Díaz Herrera, now deputy commander of the PDF, announced his retirement. Five days later, in interviews on the radio and in the press, he accused Noriega and other members of the armed forces of being responsible for stealing the 1984 election from Arnulfo Arias and for killing Hugo Spadafora. Díaz Herrera claimed that a spiritual conversion prompted him to denounce Noriega. More likely, Díaz Herrera was angry that Noriega had never lived up to the bargain he had struck to make him the head of the armed forces. And Noriega, I was told by a number of well-placed Panamanians, also reneged on his offer to appoint Díaz Herrera ambassador to Japan. In view of Japanese interest in Panama, this might have proved a lucrative post.

Although under questioning Díaz Herrera confirmed many of the stories circulating in Panama that Noriega was a major drug trafficker, he failed to bring into the open the central fact of the Noriega regime—that many of the higher ranks of the PDF forces were deeply involved with the Latin American drug cartel centered in Medellín, Colombia. Nor did he say what several reliable sources have stated—that at a meeting in Cuzco, Peru, in August 1985, members of the cartel first informed Noriega that Dr. Spadafora had hard evidence of Noriega’s drug trafficking and had to be dealt with. It was not until Noriega was indicted for racketeering by a Miami grand jury in February of this year that the full extent of Noriega’s involvement with the drug cartel was known.

The Medellín cartel emerged during the 1970s when a group based in Colombia’s second largest city came to dominate the cocaine trade. A fairly clear picture of its methods has emerged from testimony before a US Senate subcommittee and investigations by American reporters.5 Coca leaves are grown mostly in Bolivia and Peru and turned into a thick paste there. The paste is then sent to processing laboratories in Colombia, where it is converted into powder for users, and shipped by plane and boat, often through Panama. The profits to the cartel—up to $10 billion, according to some estimates—come mainly from the United States, where as much as 80 percent of the cocaine is consumed. Dollars earned in the United States are first stored in “safe houses” in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans; the money, packed in boxes, is then transported by air freight to Panama where it is put in armored trucks by members of the PDF and delivered to the National Bank of Panama, to be transferred into accounts with dummy corporations registered to do business in the United States. The dollars then can return to the United States—“laundered”—where they can be used to buy government securities, real estate, and other legitimate investments.

The Medellín cartel, which supplies about 80 percent of the world’s cocaine, is now run by five Colombians—Jorge Luis Ochoa Vásquez, his two brothers Juan David and Fabio, Pablo Escobar-Gaviria, and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacho. So powerful is the cartel that during the previous administration of Colombia’s President Belisario Betancur, it offered to pay off Colombia’s $15 billion foreign debt in return for amnesty. Since 1984 it has been responsible for the assassinations of the Colombian justice minister, a publisher, politicians, some fifty judges, a score of journalists, and the heads of police antidrug units. Last year the Colombian Supreme Court, fearful of death threats, ruled that the extradition treaty that permits Colombian traffickers to be tried in US courts should be suspended.

By now the cartel has expanded its activities beyond refining and marketing cocaine; it now plants coca in commercial quantities at home so that Colombia can produce the world’s third largest crop. The cartel has been the main source of Noriega’s income and no doubt it will try to establish close links with his successors.

Even if he did not stress the drug connection, Díaz Herrera’s revelations of corruption in the armed forces and Noriega’s role in the Spadafora murder confirmed the worst suspicions of the Panamanians. In early June, a coalition of business, labor, and professional groups organized what became known as the National Civic Crusade for Justice and Democracy. Many thousands of Panamanians took part in marches and street demonstrations denouncing the corruption of Noriega’s regime and demanding that he resign. They were often dealt with brutally. In the words of the US Senate staff report on Panama of December 8, 1987,

Between June and September 1987, over 1500 persons were arrested and, according to credible reports, subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” while in jail; 500 suffered bullet and birdshot wounds, 60 with damage to the eyes; and three Panamanians were killed.

When the US Senate passed a resolution in June calling for a transition to genuine democracy in Panama, the government responded by organizing its own demonstration against the US Embassy. On July 1, 1987, the Reagan administration suspended all US military and economic assistance to Panama. In December, the United States suspended the 1988 sugar quota. On February 4, General Noriega, one of his top officers, and fourteen other people were indicted by a Miami grand jury. The twelve-count indictment for racketeering stated that Noriega had made more than $4.6 million by turning his country into a vast clearinghouse for drugs and for money that was tied to the Colombian cocaine trade.6

  1. 2

    Citation from an unpublished report on Panama by the Senate Staff Delegation (December 8, 1987), p. 8.

  2. 3

    See the report in the Miami Herald (February 7, 1988).

  3. 4

    See the report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Case 9726 (September 23, 1987), Organization of American States. See also The New York Times (June 20, 1986).

  4. 5

    The New York Times (January 11, 13, and 17, 1988); Time (March 7, 1988); Newsweek (February 29, 1988); see also the testimony of Ramón Milian Rodriguez, Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Communications (February 11, 1988). For information on the meeting at Cuzco, Peru, between Noriega and the drug traffickers, see José I. Blandón’s testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Communications (February 9, 1988). Norman Bailey, a former staff member of the National Security Council, also told me of the Cuzco meeting.

  5. 6

    See the Miami Herald (February 5 and 6, 1988).

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