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Former Panama Dictator Manuel Noriega Has Died

The former Central American strongman spent decades in jail after he was ousted by US forces.

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Manuel Noriega, the former military dictator of Panama, who was removed from power in a 1989 US invasion and jailed for decades, has died. He was 83.

The cause of death, which was announced on Twitter by Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, was not immediately known. Noriega was released from prison in January 2017 to undergo brain surgery, but his daughter said on March 7 that he had suffered a hemorrhage and was critically ill.

Muerte de Manuel A. Noriega cierra un capítulo de nuestra historia; sus hijas y sus familiares merecen un sepelio en paz.

"The death of Manuel A. Noriega closes a chapter in our history; his daughters and his relatives deserve to bury him in peace," Varela wrote on Twitter.

Once a key US ally and an informant for the CIA, Noriega fell out of Washington's favor as he tightened his grip on power in Panama, brutally cracking down on activists and eliminating his political opponents. His eventual US indictment on drug trafficking charges gave President George H.W. Bush the political cover he needed to launch an invasion of Panama to oust Noriega, who would spend the next two decades imprisoned in the US, France, and Panama.

"The saga of Panama’s General Manuel Antonio Noriega represents one of the most serious foreign policy failures for the United States," a US Senate subcommittee declared in 1988. "Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Noriega was able to manipulate US policy toward his country, while skillfully accumulating near-absolute power in Panama.

"It is clear that each US government agency which had a relationship with Noriega turned a blind eye to his corruption and drug dealing."

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Born Feb. 11, 1938, in Panama City, Noriega was recruited by the CIA when he was enrolled in a military school in Peru, and received training in psychological operations at Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina.

While serving in the Panamanian national guard, he was involved in a 1968 military coup that helped to oust President Arnulfo Arias and elevate Gen. Omar Torrijos to power. As a reward for his loyalty, Noriega swiftly rose through the ranks to serve as lieutenant colonel and the chief of military intelligence.

After Torrijos's mysterious death in a 1981 plane crash, Noriega was able to consolidate power by taking command of the national guard, unifying the different branches of the armed forces, and promoting himself to the rank of general. By the end of 1983, he was the country's de facto leader.

Despite Panama's reputation as a key player in the international drug trade, Noriega was able to please Washington by offering assistance during the Iran-Contra affair, in which senior Reagan administration officials, hoping to fund anti-government Contra fighters in Nicaragua, facilitated arms sales to Iran. In addition to supporting the Contras and allowing the US to set up "listening posts" in Panama, Reagan officials later said Noriega even offered to carry out assassinations.

But his brutality and criminal behavior eventually led to his undoing.

In 1987, Noriega's own second-in-command accused him of drug trafficking, rigging elections, and killing Hugo Spadafora, a guerrilla fighter and a vocal political opponent whose beheaded body was found in the Costa Rican countryside in 1985. Street protests demanding an investigation into the murder were swiftly crushed.

A federal grand jury in Miami indicted Noriega in 1988 on charges of drug trafficking, prompting President Ronald Reagan to impose sanctions and leading to a diplomatic crisis that was especially troublesome given Noriega's control of the Panama Canal, an important shipping route.

After a failed coup, Noriega was accused of rigging a 1989 election and then using force to quash opposition protests.

When a US Marine was shot dead by Panamanian forces on Dec. 16, 1989, President George H.W. Bush ordered an American invasion four days later to remove Noriega from power and restore democracy as part of "Operation Just Cause."

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"The Panamanian people want democracy, peace, and the chance for a better life in dignity and freedom," Bush said in a televised address. "The people of the United States seek only to support them in pursuit of these noble goals."

Noriega sought refuge in a Vatican embassy, leading the US to blast deafening rock music at the diplomatic outpost for 10 straight days until Noriega surrendered.

Spirited away to Miami, he was convicted of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

He was eventually extradited to France in 2010 and sentenced to more jail time on money laundering charges. However, Paris agreed the following year to send him back to Panama, where he had been convicted in absentia of murdering political opponents, including Spadafora.

David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News in New York.

Contact David Mack at david.mack@buzzfeed.com.

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