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Strongman ‘Will Not Go Quietly,’ One Officer Says : Noriega: One Very Tough Hombre

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Times Staff Writer

Panamanians who know Gen. Manuel A. Noriega look with some irony today at the old high school yearbook photo of his smiling face and the short biography printed alongside.

On the page are accounts of his school activities--senior class social secretary, representative at the First Extraordinary Students Congress--and his youthful attempts at humor (hobbies listed by the graduate included “chasing skirts and eating at the China House”).

And there was the graduate’s statement that his ambition was “to be a psychiatrist and president of the republic.”

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Panamanians nowadays note that he never reached his goals yet somehow exceeded them--to the consternation of many.

As head of the Panama Defense Forces, Noriega wields more power than any elected president of Panama ever has. And if he never became a psychiatrist, he is at least driving his enemies, including the United States, half crazy as he resists efforts to drive him from Panama.

“People who oppose Noriega often end up needing psychiatric help,” said a longtime associate who is now in government.

Secretive, Superstitious

Observers who have known Noriega over the years--as long ago as his 1952 graduation from the National Institute, a public high school in Panama City--describe a man who is tough, distant, secretive and superstitious and who, through years of work in intelligence activities, has come to view the world as a theater for conspiracy.

Reports continue to circulate in Panama City that Noriega is preparing to make a deal with the United States to step down. But many Panamanians, especially those who have had confrontations with him, conclude that it will be a surprise if Noriega leaves power voluntarily.

“They will have to force him out or carry him out dead,” said a military officer who conspired against Noriega during a failed March coup. “He will not go quietly.”

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“Noriega is in his element. He has been trained . . . to deal in secrecy, betrayal and terror,” said a former high-ranking official in a government deposed by Noriega.

Mayin Correa, a former legislator now out of favor with Noriega, said: “He enjoys the idea that people are afraid of him. This is what makes him happy.”

Fear is a common denominator among Panamanians who dare speak about Noriega. Almost none would permit their names to be mentioned in this story. While atrocities blamed on Noriega are not notable by Central American standards, they have assumed immense proportions in the minds of many in this country, where military rule is a rather recent and, so far, relatively benign phenomenon.

Rumors of Noriega’s ferocity are repeated almost with reverence. Noriega is said, in one common tale, to have bitten off the head of a chicken not long ago to impress rebellious officers. At the same time, Panamanians delight in making fun of him; they call him the Pineapple, short for Pineapple Face, a reference to his acne-scarred complexion.

Noriega, 54, was born in the poor Panama City neighborhood of Santa Ana, the illegitimate son of a maid who gave him up to be reared and educated by a childless schoolteacher. He grew up among the rows of tinderbox houses in old Panama City and its crowded neighborhoods, famed for musicians, prize fighters and crime.

Noriega’s high school career foreshadowed his future political leanings. He was involved in leftist student groups and campaigned against treaties that allowed American military bases to remain in Panama after World War II.

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In student politics, one associate recalled, Noriega was the action man. “Noriega was good at putting up posters on the streets and tossing rocks at the police,” a high school classmate recalled.

After graduating from high school, Noriega applied for medical scholarships to fulfill his ambition to be a psychiatrist. None were available. Associates say Noriega accused the rich of reserving such scholarships for themselves.

Instead, he won a military scholarship for study in Peru, a training ground for many Panamanian military officers. There, a former military associate remembered, an aura of mistrust already surrounded Noriega.

The former associate recalled that “people were very suspicious of Noriega even then,” asking such questions as these about him: Was he a “toad” (Panamanian slang for informer)? To whom did he report? The Panamanian military? The Americans?

On his return here, Noriega joined the old National Guard as a sub-lieutenant and was assigned as a police officer in Colon, a rough and tumble port city on Panama’s Caribbean coast.

Tales on Noriega

Colon was the site of the first of many lurid tales that have surfaced about Noriega involving sex and violence. One version of the incident is told by Guillermo Sanchez Borbon, an anti-Noriega newspaper columnist who asserted in an article last December in Harper’s magazine that Noriega “raped and beat up a prostitute.”

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A superior, Omar Torrijos, rescued Noriega from trouble then and reassigned him to distant Chiriqui province, Sanchez Borbon wrote. Noriega returned the favor in 1969 by permitting Torrijos, by then the head of the National Guard and the military dictator of Panama, to return here from a visit to Mexico through Chiriqui and head off a barracks coup against him.

In Chiriqui, reports circulated of Noriega’s early acts of repression. U.S. officials and foes of the general accuse him of killing a Roman Catholic priest, Father Hector Gallegos, who was organizing peasant unions in the region.

Noriega’s relationship with Torrijos, one of the leaders of a 1968 coup d’etat that inaugurated 20 years of military rule here, served Noriega well for many years. After consolidating his grip on power, Torrijos named Noriega head of military intelligence.

Torrijos died in an air crash in 1981, an event that set off a revolving-door struggle among his underlings to succeed him in power. Four colonels, Noriega included, agreed to take turns at power, but when Noriega reached the top post in the Panama Defense Forces, today’s official name for the old National Guard, he declined to give way to the officer next in line, Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera.

Herrera, forced into retirement last June, began to air a series of accusations that triggered nine months of civil unrest.

Among the charges: that Noriega ordered the torture-beheading of Hugo Spadafora, a constant critic of Noriega’s who publicly accused him of cocaine trafficking. Diaz also said that Noriega laundered money for drug smugglers, rigged Panama’s last presidential election and operated a host of illegal businesses in Panama.

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The accusations surprised no one in Panama. But coming from a former confidant of Noriega, they caused a sensation and emboldened foes to take to the streets.

No one seems sure of how much money Noriega has made through his activities, illegal and otherwise. He has been publicly accused, among other things, of trading in illegal visas to Cuba and arms trafficking.

On occasion, Noriega reveals opulent tastes. Last summer, invitations to the wedding of his daughter were accompanied by a bottle of French champagne and a pair of Baccarat crystal glasses.

His sprawling home in the well-to-do Altos del Golf section of Panama City contains a private aviary of exotic birds, a large collection of Lladro Spanish porcelain and Noriega’s own collection of antique and rare weaponry.

Noriega has long denied involvement with drugs and, in response to the indictments returned against him in the United States for drug trafficking, he shows letters of commendation from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration thanking him for his help.

Few Panamanians claim to know Noriega intimately. He is a man of few words who converses as little as possible in social settings, they say. He drinks Old Parr Scotch, served by an aide, but smokes nothing and dabbles in Buddhism.

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His humor is limited to an occasional quip. After an attempted barracks coup against him earlier this year, Noriega told reporters that gunfire heard inside his headquarters had been “kisses.”

Both civilian and military observers in Panama say that Noriega is able to cling to power under extreme pressure because he has removed the claws of most of his immediate potential rivals.

As head of the 15,000-member Defense Forces, the nation’s sole military and police organization, Noriega has surrounded himself with perhaps a dozen close associates whom he entrusts with day-to-day work. Some of them have worked with Noriega since his days in Chiriqui province.

Noriega also deals directly with majors and captains who are actually in charge of troops and weapons, leaving colonels to handle harmless paperwork or unpopular disciplinary chores.

The failure of the attempted coup against him in March seemed to many to be the fruit of such a policy. When the police chief, Col. Leonidas Macias, tried to order a lieutenant who was guarding Noriega’s headquarters to yield control, the lieutenant simply refused, put Macias under arrest and called Noriega in.

As rumors of dissatisfaction in the military with Noriega’s leadership continue to circulate in Panama City, Noriega has moved to retire or exile opponents. Most recently, he dismissed Col. Eduardo Herrera, Panama’s ambassador to Israel. Herrera was seen as a respected and honest officer who might be able to unite opposition to Noriega.

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In all, about 25 officers have been dismissed since the coup attempt.

Loyalty is a sensitive question with Noriega, former associates say. “He can be generous with his friends, especially if he feels they share in some vice with Noriega,” said a former military officer. “But if he senses that you have split loyalties, he will question you. He is very jealous.”

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