France Should Lay Off The Noriega

Andrew Belonsky :: Monday, June 28th, 2010 2:30 pm

Drug icon and tyrannical General Manuel Noriega finds himself back in the spotlight, thanks to a French court’s decision to extradite the former Panamanian dictator and put him on trial for laundering some drug money.

If convicted, the 72-year old, who just ended a 20-year prison stint here in the U.S., could face 10 years in the Parisian penal system. Sure, that sounds like a good idea, except that it’s a complete miscarriage of justice that hampers Panama’s ability to move beyond their nightmarish past.

Now that he’s been sprung for a U.S. prison, where he served time for the money laundering and drug trafficking he used to bankroll his coke-fueled military regime, Noriega today finds himself in France, and authorities there hope to get a guilty verdict for the General’s use of French bank accounts to siphon drug money. Panamanian citizens, then, would have to wait their turn to try a man who made their collective life hell for over two decades.

Laundered coke money pales in comparison to the hundreds of dissidents who were tortured and killed during Noriega’s time at the top. Beginning in 1967, the general spent his adult life consolidating his power and eventually becoming de facto leader of the nation, which he policed with his ignoble Dignity Battalions, suppressing dissidents by any means possible.

A regime such as Noriega’s inflicts countless scars and lesions on a nation’s political memory. Numerous countries around the world have had to cope with official pain and suffering. South Africa, Argentina, and Chile have all held truth commissions to help reconcile the past with the present and progress into the future. The U.S. and France’s respective efforts to get a piece of Noriega impede Panama’s natural, and necessary, healing process.

There are few reasons why Noriega should be tried abroad and not at home. In fact, as I consider why he’s being passed around in this judicial gangbang, rather than facing his Panamanian peers, the only logical reason I can think of is because a number of outside parties, like our very own Central Intelligence Agency, bolstered Noriega’s military dictatorship. Our spooks had been training and arming him since the 1950s, although didn’t make their relationship official until 1967. It wouldn’t be until the late 1980s that American politicians and the public learned the truth: Our resources helped maintain Panama’s prolonged political crisis.

To allow a trial in Panama, though therapeutic for that nation, would open our government and leaders up to new levels of scrutiny on something that they themselves would be allowed to forget. Are foreign governments Bogarting Noriega to keep the truth from being revealed? If they are, they’re doing just as much damage to democratic freedoms as Noriega did during his dictatorial reign.