- Associated Press - Sunday, December 11, 2011

PARIS (AP) — Former military strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega was flown home to Panama on Sunday to be punished once again for crimes he committed during a career that saw him transformed from a close Cold War ally of Washington to the vilified target of a U.S. invasion.

Noriega left Orly Airport, south of Paris, on a flight of Spain’s Iberia airlines, delivered directly to the aircraft by a four-car convoy and motorcycles that escorted him from the French capital’s walled La Sante Prison.

The flight left just after 8 a.m. (2 a.m. EST) for Madrid. Spanish airport authority AENA later confirmed the plane had taken off for Panama just before 2 p.m. (8 a.m. EST), after two short delays.

The French Justice Ministry, in a one-line statement, said France turned Noriega over to Panamanian officials on Sunday in accordance with extradition proceedings. It was the only official remark.

Noriega’s return comes after more than 20 years in U.S. and French prisons for drug trafficking and money laundering. Panama convicted him during his captivity overseas for the slayings of two political opponents in the 1980s.

He was sentenced to 20 years in each case, and Panamanian officials say he will be sent straight to a jail cell when he lands. The ex-general, whose pockmarked face earned him the nickname “Pineapple Face,” could eventually leave prison under a law allowing prisoners over 70 to serve out their time under house arrest.

A doctor was reported to be among the team of Panamanian officials escorting the 77-year-old ex-dictator back to Panama.

“He was very impatient, very happy. He’s going home,” one of his French lawyers, Antonin Levy, said by telephone Saturday night, a day after his last visit with Noriega.

But many Panamanians still want to see the man who stole elections and dispatched squads of thugs to beat opponents bloody in the streets to pay his debt at home.

“Noriega was responsible for the invasion and those who died in the operation. He dishonored his uniform, there was barely a shot, and he went off to hide. He must pay,” said Hatuey Castro, 82, a member of the anti-Noriega opposition who was detained and beaten by the strongman’s thugs in 1989.

Though other U.S. conflicts have long since pushed him from the spotlight, the 1989 invasion that ousted Noriega was one of the most bitterly debated events of the Cold War’s waning years.

Noriega began working with U.S. intelligence when he was a student at a military academy in Peru, said Everett Ellis Briggs, the United States ambassador to Panama from 1982 to 1986.

As he rose in the Panamanian military during the 1970s and 1980s, Noriega cooperated closely with the CIA, helping the U.S. combat leftist movements in Latin America by providing information and logistical help. He also acted as a back channel for U.S. communications with unfriendly governments such as Cuba’s.

But Noriega was playing a double game. He also began working with Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel and made millions moving cocaine to the United States.

“He was for rent to a lot of people,” Mr. Briggs said. The U.S. avoided taking action because of concerns about the security of the Panama Canal and overall stability in Central America, he added.

“There was just a feeling that now is not the time to take the lid off this particular mess,” Mr. Briggs said.

As the Cold War waned and the U.S. war on drugs gained prominence, Noriega’s drug ties became a source of increasing tension. After a U.S. grand jury indicted him on drug charges in 1988, tensions escalated between his forces and U.S. troops stationed around the Panama Canal. A U.S. Marine was killed in one clash. President George H.W. Bush also accused Noriega’s men of abusing a U.S. Navy serviceman and his wife.

On Dec. 20, 1989, more than 26,000 U.S. troops began moving into Panama City, clashing with Noriega loyalists in fighting that left sections of the city devastated.

Twenty-three U.S. troops, 314 Panamanian soldiers, and some 200 civilians died in the operation.

Noriega hid in bombed and burned-out neighborhoods before he sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy, which was besieged by U.S. troops playing loud rock music.

He gave up on Jan. 3, 1990, and was flown to Miami for trial on drug-related charges.

Bush was praised for a precise and limited strike, and pundits said the president, with soaring approval ratings, had shed the wimpy image that had plagued him during the 1988 presidential campaign.

Noriega’s return to the U.S. as a prisoner of war was “a triumph for diplomacy and a triumph for justice,” said the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, who normally was a harsh critic of Mr. Bush’s.

Critics, however, saw a dangerous precedent in Mr. Bush’s willingness to send troops into harm’s way to topple a foreign leader, particularly one who had been supported for years by the U.S. The U.N. General Assembly called the invasion “a flagrant violation of international law and of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.”

Noriega was convicted two years after the invasion and served 17 years at a minimum-security prison outside Miami, where he received special treatment as a prisoner of war and lived in his own bungalow with a TV and exercise equipment.

When his sentence ended, he was extradited to France, which convicted him for laundering millions of dollars in drug profits through three major French banks and investing drug cash in three luxury Paris apartments.

Noriega suffers from high blood pressure and partial paralysis as the result of a stroke several years ago, according to his lawyers in France.

He returns to a nation that has seen a sustained economic boom, fueled largely by the return of the Panama Canal and surrounding land and military bases to Panamanian control in 2000. Dozens of new skyscrapers have risen around the war-scarred capital, and tourism is flourishing.

The ex-dictator’s return “should finally close a chapter of history that we do not ever want to happen again,” said former Panamanian Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis, whose family was forced out of the country in retaliation for opposing Noriega.

“Hopefully, we can put this sad chapter of history in the past and focus on the future,” Mr. Lewis said.

Panama remains a base for international drug trafficking and money laundering, however, and it also suffers from street crime and income inequality. In many parts of society, there is nostalgia for the Noriega years.

Julio Rangel, a 63-year-old painter who sells his works in a park in the capital, said Noriega “doesn’t represent any sort of danger to the people here” and never deserved to become the target of a U.S. invasion.

“What the North Americans wanted to do was destroy our defense forces,” he said.

Omar Rodriguez, who was selling soft drinks nearby, said that in Noriega’s time, “there was more work, and there wasn’t criminality like today.”

“I can’t speak ill of him,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

Noriega faces immediate punishment for the murders of military commander Moises Giroldi, slain after leading a failed rebellion on Oct. 3, 1989, and Hugo Spadafora, a political opponent found decapitated on the border with Costa Rica in 1985.

He also could be tried in the deaths of other opponents during the same period.

“He’s coming to serve his sentences, and that’s important for the families of the victims,” said former Panamanian Attorney General Rogelio Cruz. “His presence here is important because he’ll satisfy the demands of justice for his criminal convictions and the trials that he still has to face.”

Juan Zamorano reported from Panama City. Oleg Cetinic in Paris, Harold Heckle in Madrid and Michael Weissenstein in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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