Biography of Manuel Noriega, Panamanian Dictator

Panamanian general Manuel Noriega
General Manuel Antonio Noriega speaks 20 May 1988 in Panama City during the presentation of colors to the San Miguel Arcangel de San Miguelito volunteer batallion.

 AFP / Getty Images

Manuel Noriega was a Panamanian general and dictator who ruled the Central American nation from 1983 to 1990. Like other Latin American authoritarian leaders, he was initially supported by the U.S., but then fell out of favor because of his drug smuggling and money laundering activities. His reign ended with "Operation Just Cause," the U.S. invasion of Panama in late 1989 in order to oust him.

Fast Facts: Manuel Noriega

  • Full Name: Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno
  • Known For: Dictator of Panama
  • Born: February 11, 1934 in Panama City, Panama
  • Died: May 29, 2017 in Panama City, Panama
  • Parents: Ricaurte Noriega, María Feliz Moreno
  • Spouse: Felicidad Sieiro
  • Children: Sandra, Thays, Lorena
  • Education: Chorrillo Military Academy in Peru, Military Engineering, 1962. School of the Americas.
  • Fun Fact: In 2014, Noriega filed a lawsuit against a video game company, Activision Blizzard, for damaging his reputation by portraying him as a "kidnapper, murderer, and enemy of the state" in the game "Call of Duty: Black Ops II." The lawsuit was quickly dismissed.

Early Life

Noriega was born in Panama City to Ricaurte Noriega, an accountant, and his maid María Feliz Moreno. His mother gave him up for adoption at the age of five and died of tuberculosis soon after. He was raised in the Terraplén slums of Panama City by a schoolteacher whom he referred to as Mama Luisa.

Despite his marginalized background, he was admitted to a prestigious high school, the Instituto Nacional. He had dreams of pursuing a career in psychology, but did not have the means to do so. His half-brother obtained a scholarship for Noriega at the Chorrillo Military Academy in Lima, Peru—he had to falsify Noriega's records because he was over the age limit. Noriega graduated with a degree in military engineering in 1962.

Rise to Power

While a student in Lima, Noriega was recruited as an informant by the CIA, an arrangement that continued for many years. When Noriega returned to Panama in 1962, he became a lieutenant in the National Guard. Although he began to acquire a reputation as a thug and violent sexual predator, he was deemed useful to U.S. intelligence and attended military intelligence training both in the U.S. and at the infamous U.S.-funded School of the Americas, known as the "school for dictators," in Panama.

Noriega had a close relationship with another Panamanian dictator, Omar Torrijos, who was also a graduate of the School of the Americas. Torrijos continued to promote Noriega, although the latter's many episodes of drunken, violent behavior and accusations of rape stalled his advancement. Torrijos protected Noriega from prosecution, and in exchange, Noriega did much of Torrijos' "dirty work." In fact, Torrijos referred to Noriega as "my gangster." While the two carried out many targeted attacks on their rivals, they did not engage in the mass killings and disappearances that were utilized by other Latin American dictators, like Augusto Pinochet.

Omar Torrijos addressing Panamanians
Panamanian strongman Brigadier General Omar Torrijos, surrounded by supporters, addresses the nation on television following his return to Panama 12/16.  Bettmann / Getty Images

Noriega had cleaned up his behavior by the time he met his wife, Felicidad Sieiro, in the late 1960s. His newfound discipline allowed him to rise quickly in the ranks of the military. During Torrijos' reign, he became head of Panamanian intelligence, largely by collecting information on various politicians and judges and blackmailing them. By 1981, Noriega was receiving $200,000 per year for his intelligence services for the CIA.

When Torrijos died mysteriously in a plane crash in 1981, there was no established protocol regarding a transfer of power. Following a struggle between military leaders, Noriega became the head of the National Guard and de-facto ruler of Panama. The combined Torrijos-Noriega period of rule (1968-1989) is described by some historians as one long military dictatorship.

Noriega's Rule

Unlike Torrijos, Noriega was not charismatic, and he preferred to rule from behind the scenes as commander of the powerful National Guard. In addition, he never espoused a specific political or economic ideology, but was motivated primarily by nationalism. In order to present his regime as non-authoritarian, Noriega held democratic elections, but they were overseen and manipulated by the military. Repression and human rights abuses increased after Noriega took power.

The turning point in Noriega's dictatorship came with the brutal assassination of his most outspoken political opponent, Hugo Spadafora, a physician and revolutionary who had gotten his medical degree in Italy and fought with the Nicaraguan Sandinistas when they overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. According to historian Frederic Kempe, "Hugo Spadafora was the anti-Noriega. Spadafora was charismatic and operatically handsome; Noriega was introverted and legendarily repulsive. Spadafora was optimistic and fun-loving (...) Noriega's character was as scarred as his pock-marked face."

Dr. Hugo Spadafora
Dr. Hugo Spadafora, 39, former Deputy Health Minister of Panama who led a volunteer brigade against the Somoza government in 1979, tells a news conference in Mexico City he has offered to send an 'International Brigade" to battle the U.S. backed Salvadoran junta.  Bettmann / Getty Images

Spadafora and Noriega became rivals when the former publicly accused the latter of engaging in drug and arms trafficking and blackmail around 1980. Spadafora also warned Torrijos that Noriega was plotting against him. After Torrijos' death, Noriega placed Spadafora under house arrest. However, Spadafora refused to be intimidated and spoke out even more forcefully against Noriega's corruption; he even suggested Noriega had been involved in Torrijos' death. Spadafora moved his family to Costa Rica after receiving many death threats but vowed to continue fighting against Noriega.

On September 16, 1985, Spadafora's body was found in a ravine near the Costa Rican-Panamanian border. He had been decapitated and his body showed evidence of horrific forms of torture. His family had published ads in a Panamanian newspaper, La Prensa, about his disappearance, demanding an investigation. Noriega claimed the murder had taken place on the Costa Rican side of the border, but evidence emerged (including witnesses) to prove that Spadafora had been detained in Panama after coming into the country on a bus from Costa Rica. When La Prensa published further evidence that Noriega was behind the assassination not only of Spadafora but of other political opponents, there was a public uproar.

Relationship With the U.S.

As it had done with Torrijos, the U.S. not only trained Noriega, but tolerated his authoritarian rule until his final years. The U.S. was primarily interested in protecting its economic interests in the Panama Canal (which it had funded and built), and dictators guaranteed the stability of Panama, even if it meant widespread repression and human rights abuses.

Furthermore, Panama was a strategic ally for the U.S. in its fight against the spread of communism in Latin America during the Cold War. The U.S. looked the other way with regards to Noriega's criminal activity, which included drug smuggling, gun running, and money laundering, because he provided assistance with the covert Contra campaign against the socialist Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua.

Following the revelations of the Spadafora assassination and Noriega's dismissal of Panama's democratically-elected president in 1986, the U.S. changed tactics and began reducing economic assistance to Panama. An expose of Noriega's criminal activities appeared in The New York Times, indicating that the U.S. government had long been aware of his actions. Like so many other Latin American dictators initially supported by the U.S.—such as Rafael Trujillo and Fulgencio Batista—the Reagan administration began to see Noriega as more of a liability than an asset.

In 1988, the U.S. charged Noriega with drug trafficking, arguing that he was a threat to the safety of U.S. citizens living in the Panama Canal Zone. On December 16, 1989, Noriega's troops killed an unarmed U.S. Marine. The next day, General Colin Powell suggested to President Bush that Noriega be removed by force.

Operation Just Cause

On December 20, 1989, "Operation Just Cause," the largest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War, began with Panama City being targeted. Noriega fled to the Vatican Embassy, but—after U.S. forces utilized "psyop" tactics like blasting the embassy with loud rap and heavy metal music—he surrendered on January 3, 1990. He was arrested and flown to Miami to face drug trafficking charges. The number of civilian casualties of the U.S. invasion is still contested, but potentially numbered in the thousands.

Manuel Noriega arrested
Panamian General Manuel Noriega (C) is brought on board a US military plane 3 January 1990 for a flight to Miami after his arrest. STF / Getty Images 

Criminal Trials and Imprisonment

Noriega was convicted of eight counts of drug trafficking in April 1992 and sentenced to 40 years in prison; his sentence was later reduced to 30 years. Throughout the trial, his defense team was prohibited from making mention of his longstanding relationship with the CIA. Nonetheless, he received special treatment in prison, serving his time in the "presidential suite" in Miami. He became eligible for parole after 17 years in prison due to good behavior, but several other countries were awaiting his release to indict him on other charges.

Manuel Noriega mug shot
Ousted Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is shown in this Justice Department mug shot released by the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami.  Bettmann / Getty Images

After a lengthy fight by Noriega to avoid extradition, the U.S. extradited Noriega to France in 2010 to face money laundering charges related to his dealings with Colombian drug cartels. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years. However, in late 2011, France extradited Noriega to Panama to face three 20-year sentences for the murder of three political rivals, including Spadafora; he had been convicted in absentia while in prison in the U.S. He was 77 years old at the time and in ill health.


In 2015, Noriega issued a public apology to his fellow Panamanians for actions taken during his military regime, though he didn't admit to any specific crimes. In 2016 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and in early 2017 a Panamanian court ruled that he could prepare for and recover from surgery at home under house arrest. In March 2017, Noriega underwent surgery, suffered severe hemorrhaging, and was placed in a medically-induced coma. On May 29, 2017, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela announced the death of Manuel Noriega.


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Bodenheimer, Rebecca. "Biography of Manuel Noriega, Panamanian Dictator." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Bodenheimer, Rebecca. (2020, August 28). Biography of Manuel Noriega, Panamanian Dictator. Retrieved from Bodenheimer, Rebecca. "Biography of Manuel Noriega, Panamanian Dictator." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).