My first interview with Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega was 20 years ago. I arrived in Panama City at night, and, rifles at the ready, his soldiers escorted me through blackened byways to a reception. In the middle, surrounded by adjutants and bodyguards, El Jefe. Smiling, wearing a knife-pressed uniform, he sipped scotch and water.
Over the next two years we spoke, even by phone, and became inexplicable pen pals. Charged with drug trafficking, he went underground. He was captured. The man I’d first met as the strongman ruler/military dictator of Panama I next saw in a frescoed Florida courtroom standing trial as a prisoner of war.
The U.S. threatened life imprisonment. He was sentenced to 30 years. He gets released Sept. 9 after serving 18 years in a federal prison.He expected to return to Panama where there also exists a charge of ordering an opponent murdered in 1985. However, France suddenly wants him extradited for laundering money through French banks.
Noriega’s entire family had moved to Miami in support, relocated subsequently to the Dominican Republic and is now back again in Panama. His daughter Sandra called to say:
“My father needs to be repatriated. Panama’s charges are stronger. In France it’s customs offenses; Panama, manslaughter. France filed their extradition last week. Panama filed in 1991 and 1996.”
Says Frank Rubino, General Noriega’s longtime lawyer: “For 15 years Panama’s screamed they want him back. Now they’re newly acquiescing to a deal that will keep him from coming home.”
Fade in, fade out. The talk is of a political compromise between governments for Noriega to go to France as part of a deal to avoid problems back home. The fact is some Panamanians might not want him returned because they fear him even behind bars. Although the general hasn’t said word one in 18 years, he knows plenty.
To quote the general exactly: “Silence is the box of knowledge.”
Says Sandra: “My father’s intentions are not to come into politics. He’s had enough.”
Says Cindy: Manuel Antonio Noriega told this to me himself on the phone: “I have no fear. However, if I am killed, it will be in my own land . . . I am not going to be found dead on a street in Paris someplace.
“I am not going anywhere. I cannot abandon my responsibility, nor give up my destiny. I do not say that Panama will not survive without Noriega. I say only that Noriega will not survive without Panama.”
For now he is packing and shredding and getting rid of whatever is in the home behind bars he has lived in for 18 years.