Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Missing the Real Noriega Story


The death of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega on May 29 elicited few if any tears. But it should have sparked more reflection in the United States on his ugly history of service to the CIA, the hypocrisy of Washington’s sudden discovery of his abuses once Noriega became an unreliable ally against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, and the George H.W. Bush administration’s bloody and illegal invasion of Panama in December 1989.

In fairness, many progressives and mainstream journalists have called attention to this troublesome history over the years. But few have dared to question the nearly universal condemnation of Noriega as a protector of international drug traffickers. That incendiary claim — first broadcast loudly by the unlikely trio of right-wing Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina; liberal Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts; and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh — galvanized the American public to support his ouster.

After the U.S. invasion, which killed hundreds of Panamanians and 23 U.S. soldiers, Noriega was arrested on Jan. 3, 1990 by armed U.S. drug agents.

President George H. W. Bush declared that Noriega’s “apprehension and return to the United States should send a clear signal that the United States is serious in its determination that those charged with promoting the distribution of drugs cannot escape the scrutiny of justice.” U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton called the invasion “the biggest drug bust in history.”

Convicted in 1992 on eight felony counts following what officials called the “trial of the century,” Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in jail. Although released early from U.S. incarceration, he spent the rest of his life in French and Panamanian prisons.

The resulting publicity created lasting myths about Noriega and drugs. Journalists who should know better have described Noriega as “one of the world’s biggest drug kingpins,” to quote Time magazine.  In fact, Louis Kellner, the U.S. attorney who oversaw his Miami indictment and trial admitted, “Noriega was never a major player in the drug war.”

Indeed, at worst, he was a small fry compared to the military rulers of Honduras, whose epic protection of the cocaine trade was tolerated by Washington in return for using that country as a staging base for Contra operations against the Sandinista-led government of Nicaragua in the 1980s.
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One of the high points of Noriega’s cooperation was Operation Pisces, a three-year undercover probe that culminated in 1987. Attorney General Edwin Meese called it “nothing less than the largest and most successful undercover investigation in federal drug law enforcement history.”

Among those indicted were Medellin Cartel kingpins Pablo Escobar and Fabio Ochoa. Panama made 40 arrests and seized $12 million from accounts in 18 local banks. Said one U.S. prosecutor who helped direct the case, “The Panamanian officials we were dealing with were sincerely cooperative. . . . They could have breached security, and they didn’t.”

The operation may have pleased the DEA, but it angered the country’s financial elite, who directly profited from money laundering. One local banker warned, “this could end the Panamanian banking system, because people will no longer believe they can count on bank secrecy.”

Within two months, spooked investors withdrew up to $4 billion of the country’s $39 billion in bank deposits, triggering the most serious banking crisis in Panama’s history.

A Western diplomat said of Noriega, “The bankers can bring him down. They are complaining in Washington and they’ve got a lot of clout.” The demonstrations organized that summer by Panama’s business elite — and Noriega’s heavy-handed response to them — triggered his eventual slide from power
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It would be foolish to assert that Noriega, alone among all leaders in Central America, kept his hands clean of drugs. But much of his personal fortune is easily accounted for from other sources, such as the sale of Panamanian passports on the black market.

Whatever Noriega’s involvement with drug traffickers, as I have shown elsewhere, the Bush administration displayed unbelievable cynicism when, even before his capture, it swore in a new president of Panama who had sat on the board of one of the most notorious drug-money-laundering banks in the country. His attorney general, who unfroze the bank accounts of Cali traffickers, later became legal counsel for the Cali Cartel’s top smuggler in Panama.

Following Noriega’s ouster, not surprisingly, cocaine trafficking began surging in the country. A year and a half after his arrest, unnamed “U.S. experts” told Time magazine that “the unexpected result . . . is that the rival Cali cartel established a base in Panama and has since inundated the country, along with Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean, with vast quantities of cocaine destined for the U.S. and Europe.”
https://consortiumnews.com/2017/06/01/missing-the-real-noriega-story/

[Posted at the SpookyWeather blog, June 6th, 2017.]

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