Panama Shaken by Killing of Swashbuckling Doctor

Times Staff Writer

Hugo Spadafora was a bold and dashing figure, a well-known Panamanian physician who went off to fight in Nicaragua’s guerrilla wars. But last month, his adventures ended in a way that has shaken the government here.

His beheaded body was found Sept. 14 in the peaceful Costa Rican countryside, not far from the Panama frontier, and El Caso Spadafora, as the mystery is called here, has Panamanians shocked and spellbound.

The Panamanian military--the dominant political force in this country of 2.2 million people--is believed by Spadafora’s family and others to be implicated in the crime, and the case may have provided at least part of the reason for the resignation Oct. 13 of the country’s president.

Spadafora and Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces, were bitter enemies. In the minds of many Panamanians, that makes Noriega a prime suspect.


“There are even rumors that Noriega said at one point, ‘I want Spadafora’s head,’ and someone took it literally,” said a foreigner who has closely followed El Caso Spadafora.

Those rumors are unverified, but witnesses have reported that Spadafora was last seen Sept. 13 in the custody of the Panamanian Defense Forces, also called the National Guard, not far from where his headless body turned up the next day.

Foreign and Panamanian analysts agree that the case will continue to stir up trouble in Panama. And political trouble here is always a potential problem for the United States.

Washington is concerned with maintaining a stable political environment around the strategic Panama Canal and nearby U.S. military installations, including the headquarters of the U.S. Army’s Southern Command.

Noriega issued a statement this week vowing that the Defense Forces are prepared to prevent “the destabilization of the country.” He rejected what he called “vile accusations made by those who want to take advantage of something as painful as the death of Dr. Hugo Spadafora with the goal of provoking chaos.”

Noriega was chief of military intelligence under Gen. Omar Torrijos, who seized power in 1968 and kept it until his death in a 1981 plane crash.


Noriega had a reputation as a shrewd and ambitious schemer who used the military intelligence apparatus to build his personal power. It was not long after Torrijos’ death that Noriega became the country’s only general and the commander of the Defense Forces, a post that made him Panama’s de facto ruler.

Last year, Noriega bowed to U.S. pressure for presidential elections, but he handpicked the official candidate, Nicolas Ardito Barletta, an economist who had been a Cabinet minister under Torrijos.

Ardito Barletta was running a close second in the election returns when the Defense Forces stopped the vote count. It resumed behind closed doors and the result was a narrow victory for Ardito Barletta.

Sources close to the centers of Panamanian power say the Spadafora case was a major reason why Noriega forced the resignation last Friday of Ardito Barletta, who was succeeded Saturday by his first vice president, Eric Arturo Delvalle.

A Public Distraction?

One source said that Noriega, unhappy with Ardito Barletta’s economic policies, grew more upset when the president failed to stand up for the military in the Spadafora case. The military also apparently hoped that the change in presidents would distract public attention from the case, the source said, “but it really won’t.”

Spadafora’s feud with Noriega began before Torrijos’ death, but it flared up again this year when the doctor accused the general of drug trafficking, arms trafficking, political manipulation and corruption.

“Noriega knows that I am after him and that I am gathering proof which totally involves him,” Spadafora told the Panamanian magazine Quiubo. “If the people go to the streets to fight against the corrupt military commanders, I will be the first one in the trenches,” he added.

Spadafora, 45, was the grandson of Italian immigrants who settled in the provincial Panamanian town of Chitre. He received his medical degree from the University of Bologna, Italy, in 1964.

In his first guerrilla adventure, he joined African rebels fighting for the independence of Portuguese Guinea in 1965. Then he returned to Panama and began practicing medicine.

Banished to Jungle

After the 1968 coup here, Spadafora was arrested for giving medical aid to a small group of rebels trying to start a guerrilla war against the new Torrijos regime. As a result, Torrijos sent him to the jungle province of Darien to work with local Indians.

Eventually, a friendship developed between Spadafora and Torrijos, and Spadafora became vice minister of health in the Torrijos government. In late 1978, Spadafora quit the post and led a 300-man “brigade” of Panamanian volunteers to fight with the leftist Sandinista rebels against Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. The Sandinistas won in July, 1979.

Spadafora then returned to Panama but, by 1983, he was back in Nicaragua fighting against the Sandinistas, charging that they had gone too far to the left. At first, Spadafora was with the guerrillas of Eden Pastora, the former Sandinista leader known as Commander Zero, and later with a group of Indian rebels called Misurasata.

Last year, he split with the Indians but continued to dabble in guerrilla warfare with a small band of free-lance fighters. He spent much of his time in Costa Rica.

Before he died, Spadafora talked of plans to return to Panama. A brother, Winston Spadafora, said that Hugo planned to go into politics. According to other reports, he wanted to start a guerrilla movement here.

Fasting Lawyer

“Hugo was convinced that Noriega was moving the country toward a tyranny,” Winston said. “Many times Hugo said that if something happened to him, Noriega would be to blame.”

Winston, a 43-year-old lawyer, has been on a hunger strike since Sept. 23, demanding that the national Legislative Assembly create a special commission to investigate his brother’s death.

Professional, political, business, labor and civic organizations have issued proclamations supporting the demand. Some have called for a nationwide general strike to back the demand.

The Legislative Assembly, controlled by parties that are allied with the military, has indeed appointed a commission of legislators, but it has no investigative power and is authorized only to oversee an investigation by the attorney general’s office.

Winston demands that a commission with investigative powers be formed with people from a list that the Spadafora family would submit.

He said that his brother crossed into Panama from Costa Rica on Sept. 13 to visit his family in Panama City. Winston said that the family has several witnesses in the town of Concepcion, near the border, who saw Spadafora removed from a bus and taken by agents of the Defense Forces to the local military barracks.

Some Stories Changed

Winston said that the witnesses heard his brother shout before entering the barracks, “I am Hugo Spadafora and I am being detained by the National Guard.” Some witnesses have changed their stories after questioning by the military, but the family said several people are still willing to testify that they saw the detention.

Costa Rican police also interviewed witnesses who said they saw Spadafora detained by military agents in Panama. “All evidence supports the supposition that Dr. Hugo Spadafora Franco was killed in Panamanian territory and his body was dumped in Costa Rican territory,” the Costa Rican police report said.

It said that Spadafora’s back was scratched with the letter and numeral “F-8.” Winston Spadafora said the mark stands for 8th Force, “apparently a National Guard death squad.”