Manuel Noriega on his childhood, youth studies, and early career
I was born on a Tuesday during Carnaval; when the cars of the comparsas began to parade. Doña Maria Ofelia Moreno Felix Mejia was taken urgently to motherhood to give birth to her son; born of the single union with the public accountant Don Ricaurte Tomas Noriega.
Mr. Noriega personally signed his child (me) with his father’s name Manuel Antonio Noriega Escala; who was a lawyer who graduated in Bogota, Colombia, and had been General of the liberal forces in the war against the conservatives, called “The Thousand Days’ War”.
After a year, Doña Maria Felix Ofelia Moreno Mejia moved with her child back to her family home to the city of Yaviza of the Darien province, jungle border with Colombia.
She settled in the family house of her mother Narcisa Mejia and began to work the land. She brought her to live with her two daughters of his brothers and adopted an indigenous Kuna child, of who abounded in this productive region of plantains, rubber, fruit, avocado, gold mines; in an area of confluence of market, where Rios Chucuaque and Tuira unite in a “Y” figure; and they gave value to a jungle market, where merchant ships arrived from Panama and large canoes or kayaks border regions of Colombia.
It was a cosmopolitan area of domestic and foreign adventurers who made exchanges and purchases of rice, cocoa, corn, yuca, plantains, smoked meat of mountains, skins of tigers, pumas. You’d see foreigners and Germans exploding mines in Cana; Belgians, French who bought “raicilla”, eucalyptus, and other products botanical products.
There came a teacher, a single woman named Luisa Gabriela Sanchez, who befriended Doña Maria Felix and took care of the child (me) while Doña Maria attended her work in agricultural trade. Yaviza was a picture perfect place like the fictional “Macondo”.
Professor Luisa took Tony Noriega (me) daily to their work and school classes and I was 2 and 3 years old in the classroom with other students scribbling on the pages that Luisa would put in his desk in class and learned language and writing.
Weekly, the ship “La Victoria” from the Quintero-Noriega family steamer company brought Tony medicines, cereals, clothes, and food that his father Ricaurte sent, and they were brought by Ricaurte’s other son, Tomas.
At around 4 years old Tony’s mother falls ill with malaria of the region; and while weak authorizes Professor Luisa, who was already godmother to Tony, to take him to the capital where she had been moved.
My mother’s illness gets complicated, my father gives custody of me to his maternal aunt Regina, who had two children Yolanda and Alcides. There I attended primary school “Republic of Mexico” on the side of the Presidential Palace.
The new habitat was the neighborhood between the presidency of the Republic Square on January 2, the ramp of the fiscal dock off the Panama Bay and the market of fruits and the other docks, to the side of the original gym of the “Marañon”.
I graduated elementary and due to high marks entered the National Institute high school, an elite nationalist and patriotic cradle, called “The Eagles Nest”. In junior year I earned an internal scholarship to live in the boarding school for boys. There I met different and valuable new comrades from various points of the Panama countryside (Las Tablas, Penonome, Veraguas, Chiriqui)
The National Institute was located in the old area in front of the original Ave. 4 de Julio; against the wall which divided the passage of citizens who were not “gold roll”, Zonian, white people.
That sidewalk was guarded by an armed patrol of United States Military Police. Whenever there would be political conflicts they ended in conflicts between students and U.S. Military Police. From the boys ‘ boarding school in front of the July 4th Avenue they would throw stones at the soldiers and these would respond with tear gas bombs.
At the National Institute I learned not only the academic subjects for Bachelor of Science, but politics, public speaking, teaching, etc. I completed Bachelor of Science, including working at the Hospital Santo Tomas, as Technician for Clinical Laboratories and Radiology, I took the corresponding courses and was already earning money. I wanted to continue in medicine at the National University but classes were full-time by day.
My brother Diplomat Luis Carlos inscribed me to enter the Military School of Chorrillos prestigious and elite of the Peruvian army, which was a university that would permit me to continue specialized studies later at other universities in Peru, in San Marcos’ medical school of engineering. I graduated as Military engineer in five years, continued with a specialty of Cartography, in the International Geodetic Service. I did cartographic work in Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, and put a tide gauge in Punta Guanico. We made the road from Chitre to Tonosi passing through the impassable cliff named “La Zaina”. Under water, sun, dark, we mediated and marked the cartographic points in the horizontal and vertical controls along with professional field engineers, recently graduated.
Carnivals, during a trip to the city of Colon, being cartographic engineer of the geodesic services, for reasons of fate, I met the Mayor Omar Torrijos who was the military commander of the National Guard of Colon. We talked about general topics and offered to work with Colon. The conversation ended there; I went back to Tonosi to my cartography, and I forgot the incident.
One day I received a telegram from the commander of the National Guard, signed by 2nd Commander Colonel Pinilla to report to his office.
I traveled and they gave me the appointment of Second Lieutenant in the northern province of Colon under the command of Major Omar Torrijos.
I was going to earn $120 as opposed to $650 and more overtime from working in the field after hours. The National Guard had free food and clothing, with bedroom, control and jurisdiction.
In military school at Chorrillos Peru, I was filled with the spirit of the Peruvian soldier: a fighter of battles for its sovereignty against the Chileans, Ecuadorians, Colombians, coming from the independence struggle against Spain, at command of Bolivar, Sucre, San Martin, heroes was enough to keep the military ideal and to exceed the goal of wanting to be a physician.
The school was an academic university, not only military curriculum theory and practice physical and mental strengthening, resistance to inclement weather: sandy desert, jungle, cold glaciers, mountains in the Peruvian Andes, crossed by Bolivar to defeat Spaniards. And cultural subjects, historical or rich, literary great teachers and Peruvian writers. There was the cream of the Latin American culture, a Military Training Center of 200 miles; beautiful ornamental buildings, patios with slabs of marble, libraries, cadet clubs, weekly dances, etc. I felt I was in the clouds, my ego was a thousand.
Panama, under-developed and overexploited with no organization nor military, with a small group of senior officers like Torrijos range who in 1962 were feeling the difference of classes and dreamed of transforming the institution, not daring to speak for fear of the power of the aristocracy who commanded and leaded the institution.
Colon was a canal city, Americanized, the United States governor was the master of the area. It was a city of corruption, games, casinos, cabarets, whoring (cheap and expensive), the Yankees took the streets after 6 PM at night, drunk and spending dollars from bar to bar.
The young officers enjoyed that environment in the face of international artists at Paris-style cabarets, Argentina, USA; but we had social control as the youth of the population, Colonense students, or workers in the Free Zone, or U.S. military forts in areas of “no trespassing” and “gold roll and silver roll” — black and white.
Colon was a corrupt city of drugs, games, cheating, theft, smuggling, prostitution (like the New York of the movies) in a ghetto of misery, poverty, disease, people with no future. A danger to a newly graduated officer.
Torrijos is changed to Chiriqui and he includes me in his officers for the change. The change was like going from hell to heaven: a city of agriculture, rural, but with white people who saw it strange that “Black cocobolos” came with the new Mayor. The day started at 5AM and ended at 5PM. Night fell with a silence of closed doors and twinkling lights; noises from engines of cars moving on the Panamerican highway going to Costa Rica. Old cantinas around the market or the so-called “jorones” that sold meals and liquor until late night.
David City had a university extension and I enrolled there to take any subject and pass the time.
As I was head of transit and land transportation, I would interact with the merchants and upper middle class of society in Chiriqui.