Former strongman Manuel Noriega returned home to face justice in Panama after serving more than 20 years in prisons in the United States and France for drug trafficking and money laundering.
Noriega, military dictator 1983-1989, now faces three separate sentences after being convicted in absentia for crimes committed in Panama, including the murder of critics.
The ex-general arrived on an Iberia flight from Paris escorted by police, a delegation of six foreign ministry officials, doctors and a prosecutor.
He was then whisked aboard a helicopter and flown directly to the El Renacer (“Rebirth”) prison, which he entered surrounded by a cloud of heavily-armed police and covered in a cloak.
Earlier Telemetro TV had showed pictures of another man in a wheelchair, his face covered, which was thought to have been Noriega, but Government Minister Roxana Mendez speaking outside the jail said the heavy security and wheelchair ruse was aimed at thwarting any assassination attempts.
Noriega will be serving three 20-year jail terms for the abduction and murder of three opponents: Hugo Spadafora, a doctor and former deputy health minister, in 1985; Captain Moises Giroldi in 1989; and union activist Heliodoro Portugal in 1970.
“He’ll go to jail like any other convict, with no privileges,” President Ricardo Martinelli told reporters on Sunday. “He must pay for all his crimes, all the damage, all the horror” he caused.
Noriega will be spending time in a cell measuring some 12 square meters (130 square feet) large that includes two windows, a metal door, a bed and a toilet.
How much time however is unknown, as Panama allows convicts 70 years and older to serve their time at home.
The government released pictures of the cell to dispel rumors that Noriega would be held in comfortable quarters.
Noriega’s attorney Julio Berrioz berated the government for not letting him immediately see his client. “They already began to violate his procedural rights because they did not allow his defense to enter in immediate contact with him,” Berrioz fumed.
The ex-strongman’s lawyers expect the Panamanian justice to take into account Noriega’s advanced age and weak health, noting he has suffered several strokes.
A truth commission found 110 cases of murders and forced disappearances of Noriega opponents during his dictatorship.
Noriega spent 20 years in a Miami prison on drug charges after his overthrow, and was then extradited to France, where he was sentenced to six years in prison for laundering money for the Medellin drug cartel. He spent nearly two years behind bars before he was extradited.
The return of Noriega, who was on the CIA’s payroll from 1968 to 1986 before he became an enemy of Washington, has sparked speculation over the possibility that he could reveal secrets about political figures and wealth amassed under his regime.
Martinelli has said that he would like to know who “in one way or another has been enriched at the expense of the military and the state” during that time.
Noriega’s rule came to an end when US president George H.W. Bush ordered US troops to invade Panama on December 20, 1989, claiming it was necessary to safeguard US citizens, secure the US-built canal, battle drug trafficking and defend democracy.
US soldiers overwhelmed the Panama Defense Force, and after days on the run Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy. US forces surrounded the building and blasted rock-and-roll music from loudspeakers for days.
Noriega finally surrendered on January 3, 1990, and was immediately flown to the United States to face drug trafficking charges.
The return reopens a painful chapter for opponents and victims of his regime as well as ordinary Panamanians who say the ex-strongman has shown no sign of remorse.
However Panama’s predominantly youthful population — the average age is 27 — is more concerned with the economic rigors of everyday life, not the fate of a man who ruled the country before many of them were even born.