Manuel Antonio Noriega, the military strongman who took power in Panama in 1983 and was removed by US forces six years later, has died in Panama City. He was 83.
Ex-military dictator Manuel Noriega died overnight in Panama City's Santo Tomas hospital, government officials confirmed Tuesday.
He had suffered complications following a brain tumor operation earlier this year.
Panama's president, Juan Carlos Varela, made the announcement on Twitter, saying Noriega's death "closed a chapter of our history."
The former military strongman and onetime US ally was transferred from a Panamanian jail to house arrest in late January to prepare for the brain surgery.
Noriega had worked closely with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for decades before taking power in Panama in 1983, where he set up an authoritarian regime, kidnapping political opponents and forging election results.
Rise to power
Born February 11, 1934, into a poor family, Noriega began his military career early on. He won a scholarship to study at a Peruvian military academy and in 1962 joined Panama's Defense Forces, where he rose quickly through the ranks.
He backed a 1968 coup staged by General Omar Torrijos and was rewarded for his loyalty. Under Torrijos he was promoted to secret police chief and served as a key lieutenant for more than a decade. At the same time, he was working closely with the CIA.
Two years after Torrijos' mysterious death in a plane crash in 1981, Noriega took charge of the country's National Guard and became the de facto head of government. He ruled the tiny Central American country with an iron fist from 1983 to 1989.
Noriega soon developed a reputation for the brutal methods he used to consolidate power - from executing his rivals to allegedly plotting secret arms deals for the US government. He also made millions trafficking cocaine for Colombian drug cartels, all the while working as a key Washington ally.
For that reason, Noriega - nicknamed "pineapple face" for his acne scars - is often described as an opportunistic figure who juggled relationships with Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, Cuba's Fidel Castro and several foreign intelligence services.
The dictator's alliance with the US fell apart in the late 1980s, mainly due to his close connections to drug cartels. He also faced trouble at home. Mounting allegations of corruption triggered public protests, setting the foundation for Washington's plan to remove him.
Life in prison
Former US President George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion of Panama in December 1989. Hundreds of civilians were killed in the operation, which ended with Noriega's surrender in early January 1990. He was arrested as a prisoner of war and jailed in the US for drug trafficking and racketeering.
In 2010, he was extradited to France to face money laundering charges. One year later, he was sent back to Panama, where he had been sentenced in absentia to three 20-year prison terms for crimes committed during his rule. Panamanian authorities rejected multiple requests for the ex-dictator to serve out his sentence under house arrest due to ill health, including respiratory problems, prostate cancer and depression.
Miss USA Christy Fichtner and Miss Panama Gilda Garcia Lopez pose for a picture with Noriega in 1986
Noriega never acknowledged his crimes, but in a 2015 interview on Panamanian television he apologized "to anybody who felt offended, affected, prejudiced or humiliated by my actions."
"I feel like as Christians we all have to forgive," he said, reading from a handwritten statement. "The Panamanian people have already overcome this period of dictatorship."
Noriega is survived by his wife Felicidad and their three daughters Sandra, Lorena and Thays.
nm/rg (Reuters, AFP)