General Noriega on Moises Giroldi and the coup attempt of October 3, 1989
Boom! The thud of a rocket grenade pounded the stone walls of the military command center in Chorrillo. I tasted dust and could smell the burning powder that exploded just outside my window. Boom. Another shock, tracking closer to the little alcove room where I lay motionless on the floor. Would the next one hit closer, penetrate the small window, tear open the wall? How many minutes before I die?
It was October 3, 1989, and I was certain I would be killed any second by the barrage of rocket fire exploding beneath my window. All that I had been through, all the fortunes and trials had come to this: I lay prone on the floor of a small room at my office in command headquarters wondering what death would be like.
I got to my knees long enough to pray. “Dear God, if I die here, thy will be done.” Rockets shook the room. Between thoughts of death, I searched for a way out, summoning my reserves of discipline and power of reasoning. You are a soldier, I kept telling myself, fighting my emotions. Analyze the situation.
A loudspeaker penetrated the din. “You are surrounded. All of your units are with us. Urraca, presente, Machos del Monte, presente, Battalion 2000, presente. You must surrender. There is no escape.”
I was listening to voices telling me to surrender, punctuating the explosions and weapons fire. I winced with the concussion of each blast, wondering whether I could still think, still complete the next thought before the end came.
The windowpane is all that separates you from the street and the grenades. It’s just a matter of time. These guys are coming in.
The attack is too strong, too close.
No, you’re a soldier and you are fighting. Think, man, think.
But the attack is overwhelming. There is no time. . . .
The human mind cannot always be controlled; it jumps about, it paints things as being all lost, and then, if you let yourself be convinced by what you are seeing and what your mind is telling you, you really are defeated. Flashes of the previous few days went through my mind as I tried to figure out who was behind what was happening.
The previous Sunday was a day of celebration for the baptism of Jean Manuel, my daughter Sandra’s son. There were friends, politicians, members of the military, all gathered at the church.
Something was in the air. As we sat in the church for this beautiful celebration, we could hear military operations in the distance outside — tanks rumbling and helicopters flying nearby. I assumed it was routine security for the event and protection for the general staff. But when one helicopter buzzed close overhead, creating a racket inside the church, I motioned to Major Moises Giroldi, a well-liked, personable, highly trustworthy officer, who stood to one side of the chapel.
“Giroldi, find out what’s going on,” I said. Then I remembered that the staff had brought along fireworks to celebrate the baptism. “And take some of the firecrackers with you. The next time there’s a flyover, set some off.”
A helicopter pilot can’t distinguish from the air whether ground explosions underneath him are weapons being shot at him or fireworks. And gunfire from the ground can take out a helicopter. Giroldi followed my orders. This little ploy worked. The helicopter did one more flyover and was drawn away by the crackle of the fireworks. Having done that, I turned back to the reverence of the moment without giving it another thought.
That night, I slept at my room at headquarters, as I sometimes did. Not for any special reason — I sometimes stayed at the command headquarters if I had an early meeting. I went home for a bit Monday morning, freshened up and spent the rest of the day at Amador, where my field office was located.
My security team sensed trouble, and Eliecer Gaitan, my trusted aide and security chief, was especially on edge. I trusted him implicitly, and do to this day.
(Gaitan took refuge in the Vatican embassy after the invasion. He was at that location when Noriega was tricked into taking asylum there on December 24,1989. Gaitan escaped from the embassy prior to Noriega’s surrender and was able to evade capture by the Americans, leaving Panama for exile.)
He was highly intelligent, trained at the Argentine Military Academy, an excellent intelligence officer. He had been in the UESAT — antiterrorism forces — and later transferred to my personal-escort detachment. Within the detachment he had diverse duties: he acted as a kind of military administrative liaison for me with the various military units; he also functioned as military attache, supervising logistical arrangements. He had been trained by the Argentine military attache Colonel Mohamed Seineldin, to prepare for military instruction at our planned Institute of Military Studies.
Gaitan was born in my home province of Chiriqui. He came from a line of Panamanian military officers, people with a good tradition — a good family. Eliecer Gaitan had a great future ahead of him, a professional career cut short by the U.S. invasion.
Gaitan’s versatility became a liability for him. I began to depend on his expertise and gave him power that went beyond the chain of command. His direct superiors saw him as a threat because of his capacity and because of the confidence I had in his performance. He was often bad-mouthed by his superiors because of his brusque style and the ability he had to walk up to a man of higher rank with the cachet of authority.
Among his other skills, he was a fine investigator. And so it was that prior to the October coup, he was highly suspicious. Giroldi’s name kept coming up in conversations, connected to dark rumors about troop movements and protests. Gaitan could be tough and direct. He went straight to Giroldi, who, as a major, was a much higher ranking officer than this young, brash captain, that very Sunday. “What’s going on, Giroldi?” he said. “I hope there’s no funny stuff going on. Let’s not play games,” he warned.
I arrived at headquarters early Tuesday morning, varying my schedule and route, as I always did, for standard security reasons. My bodyguard, Ivan Castillo, had also arrived. At around 8:30 a.m., my personal physician. Dr. Martin Sosa, was in the process of doing a routine medical checkup, and I remember vividly that he had strapped the blood pressure sleeve around my arm and was taking a reading on the mercury. We started hearing indistinct explosions in the distance. Sosa laughed as he watched my pressure go up on the gauge; it seemed like something from a movie or cartoon. He stopped laughing when the full force of the mortar-and-grenade attack began moments later.
Sosa was there with me, along with Castillo, as I conducted this inner dialogue.
You are a soldier; analyze your situation. You have seen two military divisions outside — the Urraca and the Dobermans — where is your support?
I asked Sosa and Castillo what they thought. They said that maybe it was a battle for power between forces; that was wrong. Both battalions were lining their tanks up around the building, aiming right at us. Voices were telling us on the loudspeakers that all the other battalions were joining ranks with the rebellion. Yes, we were surrounded and yes, there was an intense barrage, I told myself. But there should be opposition out there.
I heard them say that I was surrounded and that everybody had united behind them. Intellectually, I began to realize that it probably wasn’t true. But they kept repeating it and it started sounding like it was true.
What if, just what if, they were lying?
Bullets, shells and grenades were hitting the facade all the while. We were in a tiny alcove, just big enough for a bed, a bathroom and a changing room like many military barracks have for officers. Just the three of us there, isolated, pinned down in a heavy barrage for what could have been several hours.
When the barrage had begun, we had gone looking for telephones but the lines were dead. I remembered the private line I had in the alcove, a phone no one knew about. I was able to call my office to give Anabel Dittea, a member of my staff, the emergency code words: Primero de Mayo.
I considered it likely that I still had supporters and that my phone call had put a counterattack plan into action, that loyal troops would organize a rescue. So, if they were lying outside and if my phone call had done what it was supposed to do, maybe there was still a way out of this mess.
I found out later that I was right. Very few units had joined the rebellion. The contingency planning had worked. Battalion 2000, under the command of Major Federico Olechea, was coming to the rescue, and along the way Primero de Mayo had mobilized the transit police. The Machos del Monte regiment, based in Rio Hato, an hour away, also got the call to come into Panama City to help repulse the attack.The main force of the regiment flew into Paitilla Airport and was now close to the center of action. All of them evaded the Americans, whose waffling support for the coup helped us regain control.
One of our best strokes of fortune came as a result of action by Marcela Tason. She was on her way to work when she came upon the whole thing in progress. Her son was a member of the anti-terrorism forces. She tracked him down and went out with him on his motorcycle to round up supporters. They found Porfirio Caballero, who was our chief demolition specialist. Caballero piled some rocket grenades in his car and headed for the high-rise apartment buildings overlooking headquarters. Soon, he had a commanding view of the rebellion, and he and several people he had rounded up started launching rocket grenades at the rebels below. The rebels, in turn, seeing rocket fire from behind them as they attacked my position, figured that my supporters had been able to mount an air response. Peeking out the window, I saw one rocket hit an adjacent building, which caught fire, but I had no idea what was going on. I know it got some of their men — an ambulance came in to take out some wounded.
Suddenly there was absolute silence; next I heard the sound of scuffling inside the perimeter of headquarters. I was on an upper floor, and the ground level had an open patio large enough for trucks and equipment. The attackers were inside the building and would come to get me.
I decided to leave the anteroom and go into the front room of my office. Dr. Sosa was there; Castillo had gone out into the general head-quarters area and hadn’t returned.
“Well, Doctor,” I said jokingly, “here we are, just the two of us. I just don’t know. I figured you’d be long gone by now.”
He was silent.
“You always seem to be there at just the right moment,” I continued.”Here you are, about to be a witness to history in the making. …”
I was interrupted by pounding on the main door to my quarters.
‘Mi general, come out, come out, open the door!” said a voice I could not immediately recognize. “It’s Armijo. Come out. Please don’t shoot.”
Roberto Armijo was a colonel and I immediately assumed he was leading the rebellion.
“Okay, what’s going on?” I said through the door, maintaining a calm, measured tone.
“Listen, Comandante, I have to tell you . . .” he addressed me properly as Comandante, this I could hear. But the rest of what he said was muffled and distant.
“Well,” I said, “come in, Armijo. The door is open.”
There was silence. No movement toward the door. I could tell that Armijo and whoever was with him were afraid to see what they would find when they came in.
“Listen, the door is open,” I repeated.
“No, you open it,” another voice replied.
“But the door is open,” I said. “Come in.”
Silence again, then the hesitant question, “You’re not holding any-thing?”
“Ah, hell, open the door!” I told them impatiently.
Finally, they complied. I remember that the door opened from the outside inward, so I stood back a bit and got my first glimpse of the rebels.
“Lieutenant, is this possible? You of all people?” I said to one of the junior officers nearby, a man I remembered promoting just two months earlier. I looked at this man, but I meant my remarks to be heard by Giroldi. “Exactly what military school do you come out of?” I asked.
I immediately began sizing them all up, and slowly, confidently walked out into the main patio surveying the scene. Most were speaking in that thick-tongued way people have when they’ve had quite a bit to drink. In the hallway, down toward the stairway that led to the main floor, I saw nothing but strewn wreckage. Lieutenant Colonel Aquilino Sieiro stood holding one arm as if he had been grazed by shrapnel; Lieutenant Colonel Luis Cordoba was at the bottom of the stairs, apparently under arrest, and still siding with me. I walked along the hallway and saw eyes averted as I looked at each man. I continued down the stairway, utter silence all around me, my left hand in my pocket, my briefcase in my right hand. The main floor was huge and I could see tanks had pulled in close. I walked past them until I came right up to Giroldi, the obvious leader of the rebellion, who was at the rear of this tableau, wearing only a T-shirt and trousers, down there on the main patio. In comparison, I was in full uniform, very much showing the men who their commander was.
“You are firing at your own men; you are firing at yourselves,” I said, in a measured, forceful tone, looking around at all of them. “Your own men. Can’t you see that the Americans are behind all this, that they are using you in their game? Can’t you see that you are just pawns of the Americans, up there watching all this.” I gestured up to Ancon Hill, right above us, where the U.S. Southern Command had a perfect line of sight to view everything that was going on.
We could always tell when the Americans were watching and listening to us; we would always see the orientation of their radar antennae shift about 30 degrees. That’s the way it was — the Americans were playing Big Brother up there, watching everything.
“Manipulation by the Americans,” I shouted at them. And I looked at each one individually, calling him by name. “You, look at you,” I said to one after the other. Every one of them lowered his head.”Miguel, Jose, Fulano, Solano, why are you here?”
Nobody said a word. I had been walking all this time, unimpeded, right out of the main area onto the street, where the tanks were, and Idid the same with the tank commanders, talking to each one.
I could see that there was no firm leadership; they were confused. I turned back to Giroldi; he was not drunk, like many of the soldiers obviously were. He stood there, firm but nervous. He seemed very pallid and his twitch was acting up, curling his lip involuntarily.
“Comandante, you must understand. They are blaming you for what is happening to us these days. I’m very concerned about you. Be an example for us, show them; because, without you, the men cannot function, and this country can go no place.”
Strange, disjointed words from the leader of a coup. He made no sense.
“Please,” he continued, “let’s move inside.”
We went to an area where the other rebel officers had isolated a group of my closest men, including about a dozen members of my escort unit, forcing them to the ground, facedown on the floor. Among them was Castillo, who had been quickly arrested by the rebels when he left my office in search of an escape route.
I saw Gaitan there, lying on the floor. He had been seized as he attempted to come to my aid. Rodolfo Castrellon wanted to use his helicopter to help me, but it was captured as well.
I remember the fear in the eyes of the rebels; none of them could directly return my gaze. No one touched me or changed his polite, deferential tone when addressing me. It gave me a measure of my position and my chances. Far from the sense of being lost, on the verge of death, I now slowly was able to dominate and exert my authority. I started to retake command. I could feel the tide turning, the power of the situation returning to my side.
I looked around and gestured to the men before me. “Okay, fine, let’s negotiate. What is it that you want?”
Giroldi stammered and said nothing. He wanted to confer in private with Sieiro and Armijo, following the chain of command even though these superior officers were at the moment his prisoners. They pulled aside and argued a bit, out of earshot. Armijo finally came over, delivering Giroldi’s message.
“Everyone who has completed his term of duty should retire,” Armijo said.
“Agreed,” I said, knowing they expected me to argue since I was on the list of people soon to retire. “What else?” They just looked at me, then walked off and started arguing among themselves.
The more talk, the more obvious it became that they were not in as strong a military position as they let on. My own units were still free outside the perimeter.
The rebels were behaving wantonly. They had begun taunting their captives — my men lying on the ground. In particular, Gaitan was having trouble. He had been captured outside, was dragged in and was periodically being kicked in the ribs. Javier Licona, a captain in the cavalry, had a special hatred for Gaitan. “You, Gaitan, you were a big man last night, warning us not to try anything.” Licona dragged Gaitan in front of everyone, threw him to the ground and was going to murder him right there. I ran over and pushed myself between the two men, standing nose to nose with Licona. I had no weapon, nothing, one man facing down another. “You’ll have to shoot me before you shoot him,” I said, gesturing to Gaitan on the floor.
Licona looked at me for just an instant, averted his gaze and backed off. He left the building. I later learned that he ran straight for the United States Southern Command, pleading for help. Sources told us that Licona’s plea won a sarcastic response from General Marc Cisneros, the head of the U.S. Army forces at the Southern Command.
“Well, Captain,” the Mexican-American general said in a saccharine-sweet, flowery way. “You’re a bit late. You and your dear friends are already surrounded below; there’s nothing we can do to save them now.”
When Licona fled, something changed in the room. Giroldi and the others stood there, waiting for me to speak. I looked at all of them and spoke in a loud voice so the rest of the men could hear me.
“You don’t have control here,” I said, staring at Armijo. “Reinforcements are moving in; the Machos del Monte are already on their way. Companies are defecting. You might as well face reality,” I said, gesturing this time to Giroldi.
Another captain came into the room, agitated. “Let’s get out of here, let’s take one of the trucks,” he said to one group of rebels. They started to force members of the general staff onto a nearby troop transport, among them Sieiro, Miguel, Aleman, Daniel Delgado, Carlos Arosemena, Moises Correa, Theodore Alexander, Rafael Cedeiio and the rest of the general staff.
I found out later that this abortive act was part of the plan to imprison most of my senior staff, the majors and colonels, and then to deliver Lieutenant Colonel Luis Cordoba and me separately to General Marc Cisneros at the U.S. Army command.
I had to act quickly. I moved ahead of them and began giving orders. “Nobody’s leaving here; get out of those trucks now; get down from there,” I shouted, pushing them.
“You don’t have the capacity to rise up against this comandante, not one of you!” I again shouted, looking around at all of them. “Not one of you has the balls to go against me.”
All around headquarters, my men were taking the upper hand. One of Giroldi’s lieutenants came in.
“Major, we have one man killed and another wounded; they’re starting to take over,” he reported. “We have to start to answer the attack. We’ll be slaughtered here.”
“Major,” I told Giroldi, speaking in an even, soft tone to him. “You’ve lost it; you’re not in command. You and your men must surrender.”
Giroldi knew that I was right. Perhaps he could handle his own unit, but he didn’t have charge of the men around us. Everyone was wavering. Soon, I had more men on the floor of the headquarters than the rebels did. Marcela’s ploy with the rockets and the code transmitter to Mrs. Dittea had worked. The rebels were defecting in the face of what they thought was a massive air counterattack. They were absolutely distraught.
Eventually, Giroldi called me back into the side room where he and the other rebels had been. “Okay,” he said, “let me go — I don’t know where to go, but just let me go.”
I looked at him and remember feeling a mixture of pity and disgust.”Man, just get out of here,” I said, waving him away.
Within minutes, however, he was under arrest, seized by some of my now victorious men, who had gotten up from the floor and were dusting themselves off. The tables had turned. The rebels fled, or pretended they had never been rebels at all. They sought out friends and begged forgiveness. But my men raged with fury, having felt themselves at the brink of death. The adrenaline was flowing. They saw Giroldi trying to leave and, despite his protests that I had dismissed him, dragged him back before me.
“Comandante, this man cannot go,” they said. “He must pay.” Giroldi was unlucky; his presence had become an issue and my options were limited.
“Comandante, please, let me go back to my wife; she’s waiting for me,” Giroldi begged.
“Giroldi,” I said to him, “you didn’t act alone in all of this, did you? I want you to tell me the truth. Tell me all about it.” I went walking off with him, not far from the others.
Moises Giroldi had been a fine soldier, the man least expected to participate in a coup. In fact, he had been instrumental in putting down the 1988 coup attempt by Macias, Villalaz and company. He also had shown great loyalty and personal warmth toward me. He was pleasant; he didn’t speak excessively and when he did it was with precision, very slowly.
He had been close to me for some time. Not only had I been the best man at his wedding no more than about a month earlier, but my wife was instrumental in scheduling the ceremony. Giroldi and his bride, Adela Bonilla, had been living together for some time.
Giroldi was the kind of officer who enjoyed camaraderie. Any time he showed up at headquarters, he made it a point to come over and visit with me and shoot the breeze. The talk was not personal, but about military matters. I considered my relationship with Giroldi a relaxed, cordial, respectful association.
It was difficult to think that he was now the leader of a coup against me, especially with the deference he continued to show. He was obviously nervous and on some form of medication, which caused his eyes to blink uncontrollably. But he dealt with me properly throughout the coup attempt and never threatened me personally during this entire uprising, even though some people claim that was the case. He never held a machine gun to my face, nothing of the kind. And, unlike some versions, I never held a weapon on him or anyone else there. All around us, there were drunken soldiers, some drunker than others. Not Giroldi. He was respectful and never carried a weapon during the uprising.
A doctor had been treating Giroldi for hypertension, I had been told, but he was taking amphetamines against all medical advice. His face was reddened and he was agitated, more frightened than one might expect a soldier like him to behave. All of this was even more confounding, considering my relationship with the man.
During my brief talk with Giroldi that day, one thing became clear:a sizable conspiracy had been mounted, largely through the efforts of the Americans. Giroldi was only the most visible protagonist in that conspiracy. As I began to realize how deeply this could go, I wanted to use Giroldi’s information to root out the conspirators. But after speaking for only a short time, there was an interruption.
“Comandante,” called one of my men, staring hard at Giroldi as we talked. “You’re needed over here.”
Inevitably, there were charges that I killed Giroldi, but it was not so; neither did I order his death. I had every reason to keep him alive. Even though we had been in an extremely tense situation in which the rebels had launched this massive assault against us for hours, it was not our practice to murder our fellow Panamanians. Throughout history, the penalty for such rebellion was exile, not death.
When I left the comandancia that day, it was with the knowledge that everyone had their respective responsibilities. The investigations included an inventory of personnel and equipment — who and what was missing. It was all programmed and it was not for me to do; the chain of command meant that I would receive and review a report from each unit. I asked for an idea of how many men were wounded, how many in the hospital, and then I let everyone get to their own work.
It started to rain and I began walking, trying to get away from the general vicinity of headquarters. Mentally, I had already recovered, and was thinking about the political side of things. I had won a battle, and I saw that the chain of command was operating; I had extricated myself from the portals of death itself. Headquarters was secured and my command of the situation was complete.
I returned to my office at Fort Amador, and my staff arranged my schedule so I would have maximum visibility and people would know that I was well and firmly in command. My first stop was a political rally in Santiago de Veraguas; my supporters were on the street and there were cheers and applause. By nightfall, all the world was talking about what had happened, reconstructing and often fabricating what had taken place.
After Giroldi’s death, his wife was provided with U.S.-paid lodging at the Chateaubleu Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida. American diplomats encouraged U.S. newspapers to meet with her. She told interviewers that her husband had said that they might have to kill me in the course of the coup — not as an actual assassination, but rather an attack on the headquarters by Panamanians, spurred on by the Americans, in which the United States could innocently watch the news footage of my body being carried out of headquarters. “I blame the North Americans for my husband’s death. They only had to show off their power and equipment and his coup would have worked. There would not have been a confrontation. No Panamanians are so stupid as to confront the North Americans.”^
(^ Divorcing the Dictator by Frederick Kempe (New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, p. 376). Noriega vehemently denies most of this account, by his rivals and enemies, but endorses the comments made by Giroldi’s wife. ^ Kempe, p. 393.)
Following the U.S. invasion, there were a series of trials in Panama, airing the deaths of Giroldi and the other rebels. I was tried in absentia — no surprise, since all of my opponents were in power.
The Americans had failed to accomplish their goal — eliminating me, coaxing an assassination from within. The United States realized that it had not found the means to get rid of me. The political violence had failed, the economic sanctions had failed, the military option had failed. The option of having the government in exile authorize Eduardo Herrera to come back with a team of insurgents had failed. All these options, conceived and paid for by the U.S. government establishment, with American tax dollars, had failed. Now they knew that they would have to take matters into their own hands.