Manuel Noriega: The life of Panama's former military dictator

And while the cause of death wasn't immediately reported, Noriega had recently been dealing with complications from brain surgery; in March, it was reported that he was in a coma. He oversaw the army's corrupt off-book deals and ran its ruthless secret police force.

He joined Panama's Defense Forces in 1962 and steadily advanced through the ranks, mainly through loyalty to his mentor, Gen. Omar Torrijos, who became Panama's de facto leader after a 1968 coup. No to allowing the United States to run a school for dictators [the USA military's School of the Americas] any longer in Panamanian territory.

Using that information, Noriega manipulated both his Panamanian and American bosses to further his own interests.

After Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981 - a crash that later engendered suspicions of foul play - Panama descended into a two-year struggle to fill the power vacuum Torrijos left behind. Due to this regional importance, the United States had a vested interest in maintaining good relations with the Central American nation.

But the United States at first refrained from taking action, partly because Panama was seen as a buffer against leftist insurgencies in Central America during the Cold War.

Noriega had once listed the year as 1938 and never cleared up the discrepancy.

As Noriega dabbled in geopolitical intrigue, lending covert support to Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, his criminal activities also mushroomed. The U.S. Congress ended economic aid and military assistance to Panama in 1987.

Noriega accused the US government of hatching a "conspiracy" to keep him incarcerated. As early as his student days in the 1950s, he was an eager informant for the USA intelligence services. He was later jailed in the U.S. on drugs and laundering charges, spending the rest of his life in custody in Panama after he was charged with murder, corruption, and embezzlement.

Initially he reacted with defiance as the USA imposed economic sanctions created to drive him from power. Under the judge's instructions, they were told not to consider the political side of the case - including whether the USA had the right to invade Panama and bring Noriega to trial in the first place.

At the apex of his power he wielded great influence outside the country as well thanks to longstanding relationships with spy agencies around the world, said R.M. Koster, an American novelist and biographer of Noriega who has lived in Panama for decades.

On the run, he sought refuge in the Vatican's embassy, and according to popular rumor, he arrived disguised as a woman.

To some critics, the invasion of the strategic isthmus nation set the tone for USA interventionism in the post-Cold War era and was a stepping stone to the Iraq War.

The case against Noriega rested on two dozen convicted cocaine felons, all of whom received reduced sentences for testifying.

Convicted back in 1999 of money laundering, Noriega was sent to France to do more time before he was extradited back to Panama and jailed for crimes committed while he was ruling the country, including the brutal murder of Spadafora. This view was widely derided. Around this time Noriega reportedly goes onto the CIA's payroll.

  • Leroy Wright