A Hidden Dictator

by | Apr 6, 2013

Monsignor Laboa greets women. Photo courtesy of La Prensa/Archive.


On Saturday, December 16, 1989, four U.S. military officials decided to go for dinner at the Marriott Hotel in Panama City. One of them never came back.

For more than two years, political instability had swept the country. Protesters marched against the dictatorship in the capital and other cities. When ex-colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera accused the dictator, General Manuel Noriega, of drug trafficking and the murder of the popular doctor and guerrilla fighter Hugo Spadafora, his declarations became the spark for the formation of a pacific united front for the return to democracy. Popular protests kept up through the May 1989 elections, arbitrarily annulled by the government after its candidates lost 2 to 1 to the opposition.

Economically, Panamanians were experiencing the worst crisis in our history, and diplomatic relations with the United States were at a historic low point. At the time, Noriega had also been accused of drug trafficking and money laundering by U.S. criminal prosecutors in Miami and Tampa. That same year, on two separate occasions, groups of Panamanian officials had tried to overthrow the general through military uprisings, but they failed both times.

Following the pleasant dinner at the Marriott, U.S. Marine captain Richard Haddad was driving the Chevrolet Impala back to their headquarters at Fort Clayton. Army Captain Barry Rainwater, sat by his side. In the back seat were Navy Lieutenant Michael Wilson and Marine First Lieutenant Robert Paz. The car was stopped at a roadblock set up by the Panamanian military near the Avenida de los Mártires (Avenue of the Martyrs) on the border between Panama City and the old Canal Zone. To avoid being detained by Panamanian Defense Force soldiers, Haddad stepped on the gas of the Impala to make an escape. He took a wrong turn. That landed him near the Panamanian military headquarters in El Chorrillo, where Panamanian soldiers opened fire. A bullet from an AK-47 hit the back of the vehicle and penetrated Paz’s neck. A second bullet had struck Captain Haddad in the foot, but he kept on driving. The Impala reached the Canal Zone in only a few minutes, carrying a bleeding and wounded passenger in the back seat and the wounded man at the wheel. When they got to Hospital Gorgas, Paz was already dead.

Without knowing it, these four men had changed the course of Panamanian history. The death of a Marine first lieutenant provided the excuse for the U.S. government to occupy the country by force. On December 15, the day prior to the incident, Noriega had himself named Chief of Government. The same legislative assembly that granted him that post had declared a “state of war” between the United States and Panamá. In Washington, on the night of the death of second lieutenant Paz, the White House lamented the incident, but described it as an isolated event that would not lead to military retaliation. The statement was a trap to catch the Panamanians off guard.

On Sunday, December 17, after a Christmas party with his family, President George H.W. Bush met secretly with Secretary of State James Baker, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and Vice President Dan Quayle. At the end of the meeting, Bush ordered the invasion. While the last strategic details were being put in place, the decision was kept totally secret. On December 19, the mobilization of troops began. More than 27,000 soldiers took part. Military action began at 1 in the morning on Wednesday the 20th.

All throughout 1989, we Panamanians heard constant rumors about an impending U.S. military action against Noriega. Although a military invasion (in the old U.S. imperialist parlance) seemed improbable, the threats, uprisings and confidential meetings that preceded the decision lent a certain weight to these speculations about some type of use of force. For the United States, the situation with Noriega had become untenable. Behind the scenes, as the Panamanian military, opposition leaders and U.S. officials had tried to reach a “negotiated” solution to the political crisis, there was always one key player: Archbishop José Sebastián Laboa. 

Laboa had been Papal Nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador in Panamá, for more than six years, an unusually long time for a career diplomat. I’d met him in my university days during anti-military protests. His sympathy for the pro-democracy movements was unprecedented among diplomats and especially so for a Papal Nuncio.

My friendship with him grew even stronger as I began to practice law. An intelligent and astute man, Laboa was a consummate diplomat, skilled in the strategies and subtleties of his career, although he could also quickly turn into a frank and direct interlocutor. In Panamá, he took on the cause of democracy as his own. By 1998, the nuncio had included me in the circle of friends who had breakfast with him every morning in his residence. His terrace was a space where leaders of the Cruzada Civilista, a loose anti-Noriega coalition of business, professional and church organizations, would encounter political opposition leaders. Guillermo Endara, the presidential candidate who had won the subsequently annulled elections in May, was one of those guests in December 1989. Some of the most conspicuous opposition leaders became refugees or “guests” in the nunciature.

Every December, the nuncio used to spend a Christmas vacation in San Sebastián with his family. The year 1989 had been a particularly intense one for Laboa, who was constantly being called upon by different groups to help find a political and diplomatic way out of the crisis. The night Laboa left for Spain, Endara, the head of the political opposition, approached him, asking: “Monsignor, if the invasion comes, what are we to do?”

The nuncio, a man of medium build, hugged the huge Endara, telling him, “Don’t worry; if something happens, I’ll come back right away.” And he kept his promise. The minute the news reached Spain, Laboa began to organize his return. It was not easy. All commercial flights had been suspended, and civilian airports in Panamá had been shut down on orders of the U.S. military. Laboa traveled from San Sebastián to Madrid, where he took a flight to Miami. There he was taken to the military base in Homestead, Florida, where he boarded a military plane, arriving back in Panamá on December 23.

Laboa landed in a transformed country under U.S. military occupation. His last guest, Guillermo Endara, had been sworn in as the president of Panamá, managing to set up a civilian government in the midst of chaos and a power vacuum. U.S. troops had not been able to take Manuel Antonio Noriega prisoner. He was nowhere to be found. The United States had offered a million dollar reward to anyone who turned him in or gave information leading to his capture.

On the afternoon of December 23, I talked with Laboa by phone. Christmas was rapidly approaching. He told me about his odyssey to get back to Panamá and then said he wanted to ask me for a favor. Before he said a word, I asked in a joking way, referring to Noriega, “And Santa Claus hasn’t come calling?” I always liked to tease him about the quantity and diversity of guests he took in.

He didn’t find the question very funny. He answered with a peeved tone, “How could such a thing even occur to you? This would be the last place on earth Noriega would ever come.” He was annoyed because just before his departure to Spain, the relations between the Panamanian church and the dictator had hit rock bottom, so much so that the nuncio had ceased all communication with the military. Yet I kept on teasing the nuncio despite his annoyance. “Well, if he calls, tell him to come over because this time there’s a reward. Can you imagine what the church could do with a million dollars?”

Changing the subject, he asked, “Can you stop by tomorrow?” Recently arrived, Laboa was already immersed in his next diplomatic task to help get the new government recognized.

Most of the world’s governments denounced the U.S. military invasion. Thus, no Latin American or European government had established diplomatic relations with the new Panamanian government. In my opinion, there was a shameful double standard. While a military dictatorship was in place, even when elections were annulled, when the worst abuses were committed against common citizens, almost all of the democratic governments in the region kept a complicit silence. When the dictatorship was finally overthrown and it was clear that the United States would pull out its troops and that a legitimately elected government—which had clearly won the May elections—would be installed, it was only then that the rest of Latin America decided to break off diplomatic relations. Of course, the armed invasion was a legitimate cause for repudiation by the international community. But instead of suspending relations with the aggressor, the United States, these nations punished their fellow Latin American country, Panamá, the victim, just at the moment when it sought to establish a civilian and democratically elected government. In this context of international repudiation, Laboa received a telephone call from the new foreign minister, Julio Linares. Linares’ task was urgent: to explain the origin and position of the new government to the international community. And Laboa had a brilliant idea.

The nuncio was the dean of the diplomatic corps and therefore was able to convoke the rest of the ambassadors to a meeting on December 24 in the nunciature. Once they were assembled, Linares would arrive as an invited guest, thus enabling the first diplomatic contact between the diplomatic community and the new government.

“Can you accompany me tomorrow and help me prepare?” he asked me. There would be twenty ambassadors arriving the next day and he only could count on his secretary and two nuns to get ready.

To get to the nunciature, I had to get across the city filled with military posts and civilian blockades (massive looting had occurred and residential neighborhoods had erected barricades, cutting off traffic at innumerable points throughout the city). When I arrived, Laboa was very tense. The residence was filled with people, and some who had collaborated with the military regime had shown up to ask for refuge. Panamá’s Archbishop Marcos G. McGrath, outspoken anti-Noriega priest Father Javier Villanueva and the leader of the Cruzada Civilista, César Tribaldos, were already there. The minute I arrived, the nuncio asked me to receive the ambassadors and invite them to a salon on the first floor. When most of them had arrived, I received the new foreign minister.

But just before Julio Linares arrived, another guest came in. In the midst of all the preparation for the meeting, César Tribaldos had answered the telephone. The person on the other end of the line asked to talk to the nuncio, but did not want to say who was calling. Tribaldos, however, recognized the voice. It was that of Mario Rognoni, a man close to Noriega. Tribaldos and Rognoni had gone to school together. Rognoni insisted on talking to Laboa, saying it was very important.

Noriega was asking for refuge. He put it as a condition that the nuncio personally get him in the embassy car. Laboa knew that as long as Noriega was still a fugitive, he might be able to flee to the mountains and form some sort of counter-offensive. Another risk was the possibility—at least we thought so then—that he could encounter some U.S. troops and engage in armed combat, perhaps even passing into history as an anti-Yankee martyr.

Laboa accepted sending the car, but instead of going himself, he sent Father Villanueva dressed up as nuncio. Meanwhile, the ambassadors had begun to arrive, and we asked them to park their cars outside the wall of the nunciature. We saw the car arrive, driven by Laboa’s secretary Joseph Spiteri, with Father Villanueva in the passenger seat. I had no idea that Noriega was hiding in the back seat. He was immediately taken upstairs to the same guestroom that Guillermo Endara had occupied only two weeks before.

Only a few minutes had gone by when U.S. troops laid siege to the nunciature. I was still at the door when trucks filled with soldiers ready for combat surrounded the residence. Two helicopters flew overhead. A U.S. military official gave an order: “Nobody comes in; nobody comes out of this place.” (Later, we were screened and allowed to leave).

The moment was surreal. Inside the building, the accredited diplomatic corps was engaging in an informal and unauthorized meeting with the new foreign minister. The ambassador and Linares had no idea Noriega was upstairs. And suddenly, all of us inside had come under siege by the U.S. Army because the church had offered protection to Panamá’s most wanted fugitive, the very man who had persecuted many of us just a short time earlier.

Tribaldos, one of the leaders of the Cruzada Civilista, was one of those. He protested the decision to shelter Noriega. “I went up to [Laboa’s] office at the very moment he was communicating his decision to give Noriega asylum to the Vatican. That showed me that he had made the decision without consulting his superiors. He explained his decision was a measure to avoid the formation of pro-Noriega guerrillas groups and to end the political crisis that could cause many deaths. Nevertheless, I took advantage of the privacy of his office to question why he had received this assassin Noriega, who had caused so many deaths, disappearances, beheadings and the evil that had engulfed our country and so many people…it was the first time we had ever argued and he responded to each and every question: ‘It’s a matter of Christian charity; just as I opened my doors to you, when I protected you from your persecutors, he also has that right…he also is the son of God…because this is the house of God, you see…this is what we call Christian charity.’ It wasn’t until then that I managed to calm myself and accept his position.”

Most Panamanians did not agree with Laboa’s decision. The public wanted to see the former dictator in jail, punished or dead. A few days later, Laboa called, asking me to come. I had not returned to the nunciature because it was so heavily guarded by U.S. troops and getting in and out was very difficult. Laboa didn’t want to talk over the phone.

When I arrived at the nuncio’s residence, military officials ordered me to go to the San Agustín School, which was serving as a headquarters, to get permission to go inside. No one moved inside; everything was quiet. The tranquility was broken by the noise of rock music heard at a distance (U.S. commanders decided to blare rock music at the nunciature 24 hours a day as part of the psychological war against Noriega, who had then been inside for four days). When I got to San Agustín, I was finally taken to the office of General Mark Cisneros, commander of the operations. “I am a friend of the nuncio,” I explained. “He’s asked me to come to talk about something important.” I was granted permission.

The trajectory between San Agustín and the Vatican’s embassy felt interminable, even though it was only a couple of city blocks away. Soldiers hovered everywhere, armed and pointing their weapons at the nunciature. I felt their eyes on me; the racket of the rock music grew more intense. When I got to the door facing the Avenida Balboa, soldiers checked me for the third time and let me through. Some nuns let me in and went to look for Laboa. At the threshold of the guestroom, a small person in shorts gazed out with curiosity. It was Noriega. He wanted to see who had come inside. It was the first time I had seen him in person. There he stood, the former belligerent and defiant dictator, who until the week before had believed himself the master of Panamá and all its inhabitants, all powerful and immune to punishment, macabre and unscrupulous, trembling beside the door to his bedroom. He looked at me and scurried inside.

Linares and Laboa, both experts in international law, knew that there was no easy solution. After a conversation with the nuncio, it became clear to me that Laboa recognized the extent of Noriega’s crimes and saw that they should not meet with impunity. The government could ask the Vatican to turn over Noriega on charges of non-political crimes, but the new government didn’t have security forces and had no control over the prisons; there was no way of guaranteeing to the Vatican Noriega’s physical wellbeing or the possibility of a fair trial. In addition, both Endara and Linares knew that Noriega’s former subordinates in the jails might let him escape or foment a rebellion. Perhaps the solution was to ask the Vatican to turn Noriega over to the United States to try him for drug trafficking in Florida.

This suggestion clashed with both the Church’s longstanding tradition of offering refuge to the persecuted and the diplomatic tradition of political asylum. And how could the Vatican surrender an asylum seeker to a foreign occupying force? Moreover, the Panamanian constitution clearly spells out that the government cannot turn over its citizens for extradition. Occupying U.S. forces might be able to enter the nunciature and take out Noriega by force. But this would be a unacceptable breach of the extraterritorial right of embassies, and the United States was not about to take such an action. So it seemed that Noriega could remain in the embassy for months or even years.

Archbishop Laboa and I talked about the complicated situation for two hours. Before I left, the archbishop wrote out a handwritten note to Foreign Minister Linares. I put the note in an envelope and slipped it into my pocket. I knew what was inside, but I will carry the nature of the contents to my grave. However, I can say this much: Laboa suggested a course of action.

Afterwards, I tried to meet with Foreign Minister Linares to attempt to break the impasse. Outside the walls of the nunciature, the public was growing more and more restless and angry. A great march was being planned to demand that the Vatican hand over Noriega to the Panamanian government. The music din was unbearable. When I crossed the street, one of the soldiers brought me back to General Cisneros, who looked me in the eyes and asked me in Spanish in the style of a most friendly interrogation, “Is there something you want to tell me? Or is there something I need to know?” I told him no, but he kept questioning. He wanted to know what was going on inside the house, why I had visited the archbishop. I avoided giving him details. Finally, in the face of his insistence, something occurred to me, “Yes, there is one thing. The music. You know something, General? The loudspeakers are facing the wrong way.” They were aimed at the part of the residence on the corner of Avenida Balboa and Vía Italia, precisely at the bedrooms of the nuncio and his secretary. “I think we can change the position to the other side of the house,” he replied. Cisneros immediately understood what I was trying to tell him. He let me go.

I went on to see Linares. I don’t know how persuasive my conversation was with the minister or the effect of Laboa’s personal letter. What is certain is that Noriega’s status was not resolved until five days later. On January 2, 1990, a great march demanding that Noriega be surrendered reached the outer limit of the nunciature surrounded by the U.S. soldiers.

Inside the house—I learned later—a frightened Noriega, apprehensive that the crowds could break through the military barriers and enter the residence in a furious rage, tried to get reassurance from the nuncio that the U.S. soldiers would not permit the protesters to get in. The archbishop answered, “Don’t fool yourself, they [the soldiers] aren’t there to protect you, they are outside to make sure you don’t escape.”

“But if all these people force their way inside, you’ll protect me, right, Monsignor?” insisted Noriega. Laboa told me that if the mobs got inside, they would most certainly hang them both, Noriega and himself. And he added, “I have dedicated my life to Jesus Christ, and I am willing to give my life for him, but not for you.” Before then, Laboa and Noriega had talked extensively about the former dictator’s future, about the possibility—in the best of cases—that he would spend months or even years in the nunciature, as the Peruvian APRA political party leader Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre had once done in the Colombian Embassy in Lima. And they also discussed the worst of cases, namely that a mob would enter the nunciature and drag him through the streets of Panamá. Thus, bit by bit, he began convincing Noriega that perhaps the best option would be to turn himself over of his own free will to the U.S. forces who, after all, would guarantee that he left alive and that he would receive a fair and impartial trial in Florida. The nuncio would not expel him nor would he oblige him to give himself up. It was Noriega’s decision.

On January 3, 1990, ten days after he had arrived hidden in a blanket in the back seat of a car to the nunciature, Manuel Antonio Noriega surrendered to the U.S. Army, which turned him over to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to stand trial in Miami.

On September 16, 1992, Noriega was sentenced to prison in Miami on drug and racketeering charges. Extradited to France in 2010 to answer money laundering charges, he returned to Panamá in December 2011. He is now serving a 20-year sentence in El Renacer Prison for crimes committed during the dictatorship.

Spring 2013Volume XII, Number 3

Fernando Berguido is a former publisher and editor of La Prensa, a past president of Transparency International-Panamá, and a member of the Truth Comission of his country. This article is an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir.

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